Health Reform’s Missing Ingredient: A Charismatic Citizen Leader

She would get people on the streets of Washington to rally behind Obama's efforts.

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By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Where have you gone, American heroine and suffragette Alice Paul? Your valiant spirit might stir and start street marches in Washington, this time on healthcare reform.

Here your memory lives in some young hearts.

A funny thing happened the other night when I went to a documentary screening at Georgetown University on the woman's suffrage movement, led by Paul nearly a century ago. A standing-room-only audience of 200 students, a handful of professors and the dean of American Studies, Bernard Cook, viewed the shining premiere of the student-produced Remember the Ladies. Among those telling the tale on camera were a congresswoman, a regional park manager (where women were detained), and me. We seized a chance to share some thoughts on someone who was truly great.

While interviewed by the team of Ana-Alicia Siqueiros, Emily Owen, Kelly Sawyers, and Jillian Webb, Georgetown College juniors, I praised the simple power of Paul's revolutionary political strategy. In plain English: No, we can't go home and wait for liberty and history to come calling. We women of the people are not quitting until we have won the vote in Washington. Arrest us, jail us, force-feed us behind bars. There are thousands more of us—your sisters, mothers, and daughters—from every state and we are done with patience.

Fast forward to 2009. With no outside organized force present and visible to lawmakers as they deal, debate, tarry, and perhaps filibuster on the floors of the Capitol this week, Congress will not hear a similar public outcry for universal healthcare. This reform has been waiting in the wings since the 1940s, when President Harry S. Truman tried to put it on the books. Heck, maybe its time has finally come.

Yet a key ingredient—a charismatic citizen leader who deftly wields the drama of civil disobedience—is missing from the mix as the nation comes close to major progress on domestic policy. Furthermore, President Obama is sailing this sea without his most experienced advisers on this treacherous passage—the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and former Sen. Tom Daschle, who early on withdrew his Cabinet nomination because of tax issues.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. provided ringing leadership to his people and called white lawmakers and citizens of conscience to his cause in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act passed. President Lyndon Johnson shrewdly prevailed over the strong resistance of the "southern bull" senators. But he was no doubt buttressed by King, who provided a moral compass and a soaring voice to a mass movement. The two men consulted on the telephone and each appreciated how much he needed the other to get the landmark legislation passed.

Paul, the central charismatic figure in the final phase of the woman's suffrage movement, led the mass movement to victory in 1920. It took several years of strategizing and suffering to make it happen. The president during this period, Woodrow Wilson, was the target of many signs and protests staged right outside his door at the White House gate. A southern intellectual, he made it clear he was not ready to come to the table on woman's suffrage for seven years or so.

Toward the end of his eight years in office, Wilson yielded to political pressure, coming strongly from the western states, and gave a "green light" to votes for women. He was a great man in many things, with a prescient internationalist vision, but not when it came to that.

Wilson and Paul were always antagonists, never close. Schooled in the Victorian and Virginian way of manners, he may have found her unladylike. An alumna of Swarthmore College (class of 1905) in Philadelphia, Paul cut the free-thinking mold for womanhood in the Roaring Twenties. Her family belonged to the Religious Society of Friends (a.k.a. Quakers), long known for their dedication to human rights and peace.

The question surfaced after the student screening: Why don't we know more about her? The four young women looked at each other and said they we were surprised at how many people don't know about the dazzling Alice Paul—except for those who saw her character portrayed by Hilary Swank in an HBO show about the suffrage movement. (Oh, yeah, the one who went on a hunger strike in jail.) Remember her name, ladies and gentlemen.

I bet Obama wishes he could talk to her right now about how to save the public option—getting the voice of the people heard in the streets and halls of this town.

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