How to Stand Up to the Republican War on Women

We can learn a thing or two from Alice Paul on how to stand up to the Republican war on women.

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Celebrating ratification of the women's suffrage amendment, Alice Paul, seated second from left, sews the 36th star on a banner, in August of 1920. The banner flew in front of headquarters of the Women's Party in Washington of which Miss Paul was national chairperson. The 36th star represented Tennessee, whose ratification completed the number of states needed to put the amendment in the Constitution.

Picture Alice Paul marching through the watery streets of Tampa, not one to let a tempest or a stampede of elephants slow her down. The greatest suffragette of all, Paul would employ the same strategies against the bedraggled Republican Party convention and the "War on Women" as she did against President Woodrow Wilson. It took years before the rigid Wilson surrendered to the political tide of "Votes for Women." But he was no match for her brilliance in finding ways to upstage him. She was the architect of the first social change movement, historian Jean H. Baker wrote, to directly challenge a president.

This is a timely reminder of how to stand up, 92 years later. Let's study up on how to confront a House party full of angry white men determined to deny reproductive rights made the law of the land 39 years ago. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, is all for it and will lead the parade if elected. His running mate, Paul Ryan, adds insult to injury by claiming no exceptions—medical, rape, or incest exceptions—for legal abortion. As a Wisconsin congressman, Ryan is far from alone in the House Republican majority and that, ladies and gentlemen, is what President Barack Obama is up against. It's what we who cherish human rights are up against. They have been chipping away for years on women's rights and our dignity. The War on Women started roughly a decade ago with the George W. Bush presidency and we were too numb to notice. Now it is gathering force.  

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

Alice Paul didn't spend a lot of time on sweet reasoning with the other side; strategically, she'd rather make a scene. It's worth looking back at this unsung 20th century heroine for insights into how to channel suffering and rage—equal suffrage—against social injustices against women and girls as a class. Paul teaches us that talking amongst ourselves and supporters is fine, but not that useful in gaining ground. She favored inspired confrontation, such as women chaining themselves to the White House gates as Wilson was driven back and forth. Regular sidewalk vigils—scheduled like clockwork—in the public eye, in front of photographers, were good for the movement's morale and bad for the president's mood. Wilson absolutely hated it. The story line captured attention in city newsrooms and all over the nation. 

Just the day before yesterday, back in 1920, women won the right to vote with this mass movement and a constitutional amendment. The key word is "mass;" she mobilized hundreds and thousands of women to come to Washington to take the city by storm. (Pardon the pun, Tampa.) Only by Paul, the striking Quaker siren, taking the struggle out to the streets did the suffrage movement wrest the vote from the cold grip of its principal foe: the American president who was for making the world safe for democracy in World War I. Paul never asked Wilson for anything. From the first day he arrived in Washington as president-elect, he asked where all the crowds of people were, meant to greet him. The answer: They've all gone to the suffrage parade! As you can imagine, Wilson sulked, none too pleased.  

[See a Slideshow of the 11 Most Memorable Political Convention Speeches.]

Susan B. Anthony never lived to see the day that women voted and there's a reason for that. She led the women's rights movement in a systematic, state-by-state, convention-by-convention mode. She laid the groundwork for the young Paul, who had learned more militant tactic and techniques in London, where she watched the Pankhurst sisters in action. The critical point is that Paul took the movement outside in a time when there were no airwaves, but still a good story to tell. She took the movement straight to the American people along with rattling the peace of President Wilson in the White House. She and her legions drew waves of public sympathy and support. 

Now here's the thing. Some suffragettes were arrested, jailed, and force-fed when they went on a hunger strike. Paul was one of them. That did not slow her down. Far from it. Once things got brutal, it was only a matter of time before the cause would cross the finish line. The dark other side was taking things too far against women who, after all, had pressed for citizenship since 1848, the date of the first women's rights convention. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Alice Paul graduated from Swarthmore College in the class of 1905. The world was safer for democracy 15 years later. This is what I think she'd say to us today. First, take the House back from the extreme men who run it. Second, make a huge deal about defending Planned Parenthood and the legal ground we stand on now. Third, our rights have got to be fought for. And she'd add: "repeatedly." (A Swarthmore classmate reminded me of that last word—thanks, Tom Sgouros.)   

Because you know what they'll try to take away next: Votes for Women. 

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