Dr. King, Gandhi, and…Alice Paul

In Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign, English scholars Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene seek to lift American suffragist Alice Paul into history’s pantheon of nonviolent theorists and leaders, alongside Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others.[1] One might posit, particularly after the first few pages of the introduction, that the authors intend to elevate Paul into her proper place as a major figure in the fight for women’s right to vote, alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Anna Howard Shaw, having been long ignored and unknown.[2] The work does this, certainly, but is not the first to do so. Adams and Keene make clear that prior works of the 1980s and 1990s at least partially accomplished this, and clarify what makes their 2008 text different: “It is time for a thorough consideration of her campaign theory and practice.”[3] They see a “blank space” in the history of Paul, the need for an examination of “her reliance on nonviolence” and “her use of visual rhetoric,” the foundations of her theory and practice, respectively.[4] Of course, a “consideration” is not a thesis, and the reader is left to ascertain one without explicit aid. After the parenthetical citations, this is the first clue, for those who did not examine the cover biographies, that the authors are not of the field of history. Fortunately, it grows increasingly clear that Adams and Keene are arguing Paul was one of world history’s great nonviolent theorists and activists, not simply that she was one of America’s great suffragists, seconding prior works.

The introduction, after the comments on the text’s purpose, notes that Paul “established the first successful nonviolent campaign for social reform in the United States, experimenting with the same techniques that Gandhi employed in South Africa and India.”[5] This is the first mark of her full significance. The book concludes with the reiteration that she “created the first successful nonviolent campaign for social change in the United States. Like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, she used every possibility of a nonviolent rhetoric to bring both a greater sense of self and civil rights to a disenfranchised group.”[6] In between, especially in the second chapter, on Paul’s theory, “like Gandhi” is used repeatedly. For instance, it or something analogous is employed on pages 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, and 41. “Like Gandhi, [Paul] would not alter her course to placate unhappy adherents.”[7] (The parallel thinking and work is outlined, but the authors do not actually cite evidence concerning what influence Gandhi, leading passive resistance in South Africa until 1914 and in India after that, had on Paul, or vice versa, despite teasing that the two may have met in 1909.[8]) Not being Paul’s contemporary, King receives less attention. But by the end of the chapter and the book, the message is received: Paul’s name, her ideology and campaign, should be spoken in the same breath as other historical icons of nonviolent mass movements. There are few similar glowing comparisons to, say, Stanton or Anthony, further suggesting the authors’ primary intent.

The text is organized largely chronologically. The first chapter concerns Paul’s youth, education, and activism in England, while the second chapter, exploring Paul’s theory of nonviolence, is the most thematic. Then chapters three through nine focus on the different activities of the American campaign for women’s right to vote (“The Political Boycott,” “Picketing Wilson,” “Hunger Strikes and Jail”), following its escalation over time (1912-1920).[9] Of course, some of the activities span the decade — chapter three examines the Suffragist paper and its appeals, an ongoing effort rather than strictly an early one.

Adam and Keene use letters, newspapers, photographs, pamphlets, books, and other primary documents of the era to illuminate Paul’s campaign of powerful visuals, persistent presence, and bold acts of protest, as well as her commitment to peaceful resistance and disruption. The Suffragist publication is the most cited source, and Paul’s personal letters are oft-used as well.[10] At times, the authors also cite a plethora of secondary sources, perhaps more than average for historical texts — possibly another subtly different tack of the English academics. Five secondary sources are used on pages 28 and 29 alone, for instance. This is during an exploration of the goals, tactics, and philosophy of nonviolent action, and the effect is twofold. While it fleshes out the conclusions people like Paul, Gandhi, and King reached, it pulls the reader out of the historical moment. An example:

As Paul’s clashes with Wilson and the legislature escalated, she was keeping her movement in the public eye, but she also risked alienating those with the power to pass the bill. Increasingly strong nonviolent rhetoric could have the wrong effect, as William R. Miller notes: if campaigners “embarrass the opponent and throw him off balance,” they could “antagonize the opponent and destroy rather than build rapport.”[11]

The best works of history often use secondary sources, but this repeated structure, Paul’s strategies approved or critiqued by more modern texts on movement theory, begins to feel a bit ahistorical. It is looking at Paul through the judging lens of, in this case, Miller’s 1964 Nonviolence: A Christian Interpretation. It would have been better for Adams and Keene to use, if possible, Paul’s own writings and other primary sources to capture this idea of the cost-benefits of confronting power. Then secondary sources could be used to note that those in later decades increasingly came to accept what Paul and others had determined or theorized. Perhaps the authors were summarizing and validating that which they did not see summarized and validated in the 1910s, but this is done often enough that one suspects they were stuck in a mindset of working backward.

Nonetheless, the work’s sources powerfully accomplish its purpose, the elevation of Alice Paul. This exploration of her ideological foundations, her theory of passive resistance to change perceptions (and self-perceptions) of women, and her steadfast strength and leadership through a dangerous campaign secure her “place in history.”[12] Adams and Keene demonstrate how Paul’s Quaker background and reading of Thoreau and Tolstoy molded a devotion to nonviolent direct action and “witnessing,” or serving as an example for others.[13] And they show how closely practice — strategies and tactics — followed theory, a key to placing Paul alongside Gandhi and King. Under her direction, visual rhetoric was used to witness and make persuasive appeals, growing from “moderate to extreme forms of conventional action and then from moderate to extreme forms of nonviolent action,” all widely publicized for maximum impact.[14] It began with articles, cartoons, and photographs in publications like the Suffragist, as well as speeches and gatherings, to artful parades, coast-to-coast journeys, and lobbying, and then escalated to a boycott of Democrats for opposing women’s rights, a picket of the White House, and a badgering of President Wilson wherever he went. Upon arrest over picketing, the suffragists engaged in work and hunger strikes (Paul was force-fed). After release from prison, they burned Wilson, and his words, in effigy.[15] Rejecting the more violent methods of England’s suffragettes, Paul and the American activists were nevertheless abused by police, crowds, and prison overseers.[16] Fierce opposition stemmed from reactionary ideologies of womanhood (neither the vote nor direct action was thought the purview of proper ladies), nationalism (such strong denouncements of Wilson and pickets during World War I were deemed unpatriotic and offensive),[17] and likely power (victory could lead to domino effects — the fall of other repressive laws against women, as well as attempts by other subjugated groups to rise up). As Paul had envisioned, their struggle demonstrated to themselves and all Americans women’s strength and power, making it increasingly difficult to argue against suffrage over notions of women’s dependency and weakness.[18] Adams and Keene’s primary sources thoroughly depict all of these developments. For instance, an article in the Washington Star in early 1917, while suffragists tried not to freeze during their daily protest in the capital, demonstrated how direct action informed views on women: “Feminine superiority is again demonstrated. The President of the United States took cold during a few hours’ exposure to conditions the White House pickets had weathered for weeks.”[19]

Overall, Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign is an excellent text for general readers. Due to its oddities, it may not be the best example of historical writing for undergraduate and graduate students — though that is not to say the story of Paul and the more militant American suffragists can be passed over. Adams and Keene’s thesis, though somewhat unconventional, is compelling and urgent. Alice Paul’s name must no longer be met with blank stares by the average American, but, like the name Gandhi or King, with recognition and respect for her many accomplishments.

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[1] Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene, Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), xv-xvi. 

[2] Ibid., xi-xv.

[3] Ibid., xv-xvi.

[4] Ibid., xvi.

[5] Ibid., xvi.

[6] Ibid., 247.

[7] Ibid., 35.

[8] Ibid., 26.

[9] For a summary of the campaign, see ibid., xiv or 40.

[10] Ibid., Works Cited and 258.

[11] Ibid., 39.

[12] Ibid., 247.

[13] Ibid., 21-25.

[14] Ibid., 40.

[15] Ibid., xiv, xvi, 40, 246.

[16] Ibid., 201-204, for example.

[17] Ibid., 92-94, 126-127, 165-166, 167-172, 216.

[18] Ibid., xvi.

[19] Ibid., 166.