Jean Baker: Alice Paul vs Woodrow Wilson

Today when I read Sharon Schlegel’s account of meeting the 92-year-old Alice Paul in a nursing home (Schlegel describes her as at first “unresponsive and treated as senile”) I think of my mother Rosalie Yerkes Figge, who retained her feisty opinions until her death at 96. I also remind myself not to subject other people’s mothers and grandmothers to the prejudice of ageism.

Schlegel didn’t. Schlegel is a lifelong admirer of Paul.

Alice Paul is the subject of discussion, not just because the constitutional amendment she promoted is on the table again, but because Goucher College historian Jean H. Baker will speak about her at the Princeton Public Library on Monday, October 26, at 7 p.m. The talk is cosponsored by the Princeton Friends Meeting (namely Ann Yasuhara and Nancy Strong).

Paul’s dedication to the feminist cause was rooted in her upbringing as a Quaker and honed at a Quaker college, Swarthmore, Class of 1905. (She also had 2 graduate degrees from Penn, 2 law degrees from American University, and one from Washington College of Law.)

Clicking around to find info on Jean Baker I hit gold: an excerpt of the Paul chapter in Baker’s “Sisters: the Lives of America’s Suffragettes.” I’ve never been a fan of Woodrow Wilson (not a very comfortable position in this town) but Baker really socks it to him in her description of how Paul outwitted and outmaneuvered the hapless president. At least that’s my interpretation from skimming the excerpt.

My favorite part of the excerpt: On the day before Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration Paul managed to stage a march the likes of which the Capitol had never seen. When Wilson stepped off the train, having been hailed and farewelled from the train station in Princeton, he found no welcoming crowds. All his supporters (men of course) were out harassing the marching suffragettes, who captured the headlines on what should have been his triumphant day.

That was in 1913, and almost 60 years later at the time of the nursing home interview, women had gotten the vote (1920) but the Equal Rights Amendment still had not been passed. Of course we now know that it never passed, but mention of it brought Paul out of a seeming coma. As Schlegel writes, her eyes flashed: “It WILL PASS,” she said. “It will pass because it is right!”

I may have a docile persona, but I was raised to think women are not just equal to, but better than, men. I can still hear my mother saying, with disgust over some ill-advised male’s dumb-cluck move, “Just like a man.” Of course my father was the exception; she devoted her married life to him, a brilliant teacher/researcher who, at home, cooked and did dishes.

Her attitude might have had something to do with her alma mater, Goucher, where she was declared a Goucher Treasure for the Class of ’31, but when I read Baker’s account of suffragette days, I realize that my mother came of age when women were more obstreperous. In contrast, I was a teen in the 1950s, a time when “girls” hoped to emerge from college, not just with a diploma, but with an engagement ring.

And by the time of the next feminist wave, in the early 1970s, I was nursing my third child. Ten years before I’d married into a pre-feminist world where men didn’t change diapers. The prospects of my being able to amend the marriage contract didn’t look good.

I was too late for the first feminist movement and too early for the second. I’ve never been particularly interested in the history of either one, but my appetite is whetted now. And — like you — I hope to goodness we are all still feisty at 92.

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