Alice Paul: We Want to Vote

In 1920, U.S. women won the right to vote — after years of struggle. Alice Paul helped make it happen.
by Kathy Wilmore

About This Play

The Constitution has been the fundamental law of the U.S. for more than 200 years. In the beginning however, some of the rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution did not apply to everyone. Over the years, "amendments" (changes) have been added to ensure that it truly applies to all.

One group of people who needed a constitutional amendment to secure their rights were women. Only New Jersey allowed women to vote, and it took away that right in 1807. The next state to give women the vote was Wyoming, in 1890. By 1913, only nine states — all in the West — gave women a voice in how their country was run.

Always, there were some women who demanded "suffrage" (the right to vote). In time, their numbers grew, and their voices became louder and harder to ignore. One of the clearest, strongest voices belonged to a young woman named Alice Paul.

Paul was a driving force in the U.S. woman-suffrage movement. You might say that she was the perfect person for the job. As her mother once said, "Well, Mr. Paul [Alice's father] always used to say, when there was anything hard and disagreeable to be done, 'I bank on Alice.'"

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Narrator A: In 1885, Alice Paul is born in Moorestown, New Jersey. Her parents are Quakers who raise their four children in the Quaker tradition, which stresses self-discipline and service to one's community.

Young Alice takes those lessons to heart. After graduating from college, she goes to England to earn a living as a social worker. One day, at a speech by Christable Pankhurst...

Christabel Pankhurst: Are we women not as hard workers as men? Did we not help to build this nation? But where is our voice? How can we be heard if we are not allowed to vote?

Alice Paul (to another woman in the audience): My parents always said the same. Isn't it obvious?

Woman: To you, maybe. But listen!

Man #1: Boo! Get out!

Man #2: She must be insane!

Man #3: Go home to your kitchens, where you women belong!

Alice Paul (shocked): I can't believe this! How can they be so blind?

Narrator A: Paul pours her energies into woman suffrage, joining protest marches and picket lines. The British police crack down hard on the protesters. Paul and other women are jailed again and again.

Policeman #1: These women are crazy. We put 'em in jail, but they don't learn. Soon as we release them, they go right back out in the streets.

Policeman #2: Aye, absolutely uncivilized. When they're in jail, some of 'em even refuse to eat!

Policeman #1: No problem — just force feed them. If they choke, too bad.

Alice Paul: That's barbaric. And you call us uncivilized?

Policeman #1: Quiet, you! Go sit on those benches with the others. We'll have you all in cells before long.

Alice Paul (to woman next to her): Hi, I'm Alice Paul. I see you're wearing a U.S. flag pin. Are you an American?

Lucy Burns: Yes, I'm Lucy Burns.

Alice Paul: Pleased to meet you. Don't you think we need to make this same kinds of noise in America?

Lucy Burns: Sure! Even if women win the vote here, when you and I go back home, we'll be powerless again.

Alice Paul: Not for long — not if I have anything to say about it!

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Narrator B: Alice Paul and Lucy Burns become fast friends. In 1912, Paul goes back to the U.S. to attend graduate school. But she can't get woman's suffrage out of her mind. One day, when Burns is visiting...

Alice Paul: Lucy, I can't stand it The woman-suffrage workers in this country are going about it all wrong.

Lucy Burns: What do you mean?

Alice Paul: They're too polite. They go to meetings. They ask men to please let them vote. They're working bit by bit, trying to win the vote in one state at a time.

Lucy Burns: In time, if we keep working, we'll win more.

Alice Paul: That will take too long! Besides, some states may refuse to give women the vote. Or they may put limits on that right. Woman suffrage has to be a "federal" (national) law. That means we have to get Congress to amend the Constitution.

Narrator B: Paul moves to Washington, D.C., to try to do just that.

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Narrator C: Paul's energy is boundless. She finds work for every volunteer, and has a talent for getting people to donate to the cause For instance, after a meeting...

Alice Paul: Glad you came, ma'am. Will you give $1,000 to our cause?

Meeting Member: I'm sorry, but I don't have that much to give.

Alice Paul: Will you give $100?

Meeting Member: No.

Alice Paul: Will you give $25?

Meeting Member: No.

Alice Paul: Will you give —

Meeting Member: Here! I'll give $5.

Narrator C: Paul organizes a major protest march for March 3, 1913 — the day before Woodrow Wilson is to be sworn in as the new U.S. President. That day...

Woodrow Wilson (arriving in Washington by train): We are here at last.

Aide: Yes, sir. Your car is this way.

Wilson: I suppose there are crowds outside, awaiting my arrival?

Aide: Well, sir, they were there...

Wilson: What do you mean "were"?

Aide: They've all gone over to watch the woman-suffrage parade!

Narrator C: Meanwhile, across town at the Secretary of War's office...

Henry L. Stimson (yelling): How could that march have turned into a riot?

Assistant: An antisuffrage mob kept yelling and calling them names, but the women kept on marching, and —

Stimson: Where were the police?

Assistant: They were there. But they refused to help the women, sir.

Stimson: We must have order! Call in the troops from Fort Meyer!

Narrator C: Many watchers at the march are shocked by the harsh way the suffragists are treated. The riot wins the cause nationwide attention — and growing sympathy.

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Narrator D: In 1914, both houses of Congress vote on a woman-suffrage amendment. They vote no.

Lucy Burns: Well, what do we do now?

Alice Paul: We work harder, talk louder, and keep pushing. After all we lost by one vote in the Senate!

Narrator D: In 1916, Paul founds the National Woman's Party (NWP), the same year, President Wilson, running for reelection, appears at another group's suffrage meeting...

Wilson: Some day, you will get what you want. But for now, surely you can afford to wait a little while.

Alice Paul (after Wilson is reelected): Wilson says we should wait. But we cannot and will not! Now that he's back in the White House, let's make sure that he knows we're serious.

Narrator D: In January 1917, NWP members begin picketing the White House. They are more or less ignored. But in April, the U.S. enters World War I. Paul and others continue picketing and demanding the vote for women. To many Americans, protesting against the President while the nation is at war seems unpatriotic. In June, the police begin arresting the picketers. In October, Paul is arrested and sentenced to seven months in prison. She and other jailed women stage a hunger strike. Later when they are released...

Lucy Burns: When I refused to eat, five people held me down at my legs, arms, and head. I wouldn't open my mouth, so a doctor pushed a tube in my nostril and down my throat. They forced food into my stomach through the tube. It was horrible!

Alice Paul: They did the same to me, but we won't give up! Never!

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Narrator E: Again and again, Congress votes down the woman-suffrage amendment. On January 10, 1918, the voting is so close that one sick Congressman is carried in on a stretcher to cast his vote. The amendment passes the House. Now it is up to the Senate. President Wilson asks the Senate to vote yes, but the amendment loses by two votes. Then on May 20, 1919 ...

Lucy Burns: Alice, we've done it! Congress just passed the amendment!

Alice Paul: I heard. But our work isn't over yet. The amendment won't become law unless 36 states ratify [approve] it. Let's make sure they do!

Narrator E: On August 26, 1920, Tennessee becomes the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. American women finally win the right to vote — not just in some states, but nationwide.

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To Alice Paul, winning the vote was just one key step. Women, she said still had other rights to win. In 1923 she sent Congress an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). It would guarantee men and women equal rights in jobs, pay, housing, and all other aspects of life. Congress passed it in 1972. But it never became law because not enough states ratified it.

Today, American women enjoy many more freedoms and responsibilities than they did in Paul's time. There are female Senators, governors, and mayors, as well as female voters. Women are pilots as well as flight attendants, directors of major corporations as well as secretaries, and presidents of universities as well as teachers. But some people say that women still face a "glass ceiling" — better jobs that they can see, but are kept from getting.

Not everyone approves of these new roles. Some people believe that a woman's main responsibilities are at home — especially if she has children.

When Alice Paul died in 1977, she believed that there was much more work to be done in improving women's rights. What do you think?

Adapted from Junior Scholastic, March 11, 1994.

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