Alice Paul Knew How to 'Lean In'

Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer can learn a thing of two from suffragette Alice Paul.

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Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, speaks at a Facebook event for marketing professionals, Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012 in New York. New, potentially lucrative advertising opportunities are coming to Facebook as a prelude to its initial public offering of stock. The idea is to lure big brands with the promise of effective, precisely targeted ads that reach the social network's 845 million users.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, speaks at a Facebook event for marketing professionals in 2012 in New York.

There was something I didn't tell you about Alice Paul's March suffrage parade 100 years ago in Washington. You know she stole the show away from Woodrow Wilson, the arriving president-elect. She's more timely now as we contemplate the meaning of "leaning in"—subject of a manifesto by Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, published this week. 

The sprightly Paul, 28, brought a beautiful vision of  nonviolent resistance to the suffrage parade, led by a woman on a white horse, taking the struggle to the streets. Thousands of women joined the exhilarating mass movement aimed at turning Wilson—no friend to the rallying cry, "Votes for women!" 

So many of you expressed interest in Paul, so I must share a sobering fact I learned at the Newsuem's display of 1913 newspaper headlines. The suffragettes were met by a mob of men who mocked and jostled them. The "jeering" mob disrupted Paul's parade while the police did nothing. They were not-so-innocent bystanders who allowed the suffrage marchers to get insulted and hurt under their noses. Very nice.  

[See Photos: International Women's Day 2013]

The parade had to regroup and go on, but what a lovely metaphor for the uncharted suffrage journey. Paul had a bracing take-it-to-the-streets Washington strategy that departed from the dead Susan B. Anthony's state conventions and petition signatures. 

To be blunt, Paul cared not a fig about Kansas—she cared about making woman suffrage impossible for the president to ignore. She "leaned in" real good, with vigils outside the White House gate, demanding democracy here at home—while the lofty Wilson spoke of making the world safe for democracy.  

Yet in time, the brutality of a Virginia jail made the suffrage parade harassment look like a picnic. Truly, the vote was not given or "granted" to women in 1920; it was taken and won by an all-women mass movement. Let me assure you, if we had waited for men to give women the vote, we'd still be waiting. That's the history they never told you—and I learned it only with effort, though I went to the same college as Alice Paul. 

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is Voter Fraud a Real Problem?]

But it's my job to make the past present, to honor history's unsung heroines. Did you know Paul was also author of the Equal Rights Amendment?  She spent the rest of her life on that, and never lived to see it passed. She named it after Lucretia Mott, the famous spitfire Quaker who founded the women's rights movement in 1848. Mott and her husband James were among the founders of our small college, with those that love it: Swarthmore.  

To mix Paul into the conversations about leaning in, I watched Sheryl Sandberg on CBS News 60 Minutes. Already a bit of a breakthrough: a story about a woman, told by a woman. And two of the three stories on the broadcast were told by female correspondents. Not bad at all. 

Channeling Paul, I think she'd urge women to take to heart Sandberg's advice on winning behavior in the workplace. Younger women, even Academy Award-winning actresses, don't bring much self-confident poise to the table and to public speaking, which is a shame. Consider how much more confident and relaxed actors are upon accepting awards—case in point: Daniel-Day Lewis. The grande dames, Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep, have presence and elegance as they address an audience, but the show pointed to a general timidity that I see and hear in real life—the reluctance to be definite and assertive in person. Among the fair sex, up-talking is all too common in college classes, on and off the job, and robs the speaker of authority.  

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

Sandberg's book on personal power will likely ring true and be of practical use on an individual basis. Of course, Paul worked on a much larger social canvas, for amendments to the highly imperfect Constitution, to empower all women. In London, she furthered her education in social and political economy, and learned the outdoor, more militant techniques of the British woman suffrage movement.  What was all hers: rare charisma, the power to inspire.  

Paul thought in terms of challenging and enlarging structures, systems, and laws that cut unfairly against women. She did not focus on changing cultural customs and habits in a male-dominated society. Speaking for her is a liberty, but she did not see significant social change happening with each woman rowing her own boat.  

As for what the suffrage leader would say to Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's new CEO, who disowned feminism as a thing of the past, something like this: "I didn't get force-fed in jail so that you could build a nursery next door to your office." Paul was a champion for women and citizenship for the ages. Mayer has a long way to go—dare I say baby? No, I don't think so. 

Next time: Alice Paul and Hillary Clinton 

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