J. D. Zahniser, Amelia R. Fry. Alice Paul: Claiming Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 408 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-995842-9.
Reviewed by Einav Rabinovitch-Fox
Published on H-SHGAPE (January, 2015)
Commissioned by Julia Irwin (University of South Florida)
Reclaiming Alice Paul
With the approaching centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment ratification, the history of the suffrage movement and its battle for gaining votes for women is sure to grab again the attention of many historians and the public at large. One of the longest and most successful political campaigns in this country’s history, the fight for suffrage was never monolithic but fought on many levels and by many people and organizations. In the new biography on Alice Paul, the authors J. D. Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry turn their attention to the radical suffragist and the founder of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) to tell the story of women’s fight for suffrage. Often overshadowed by other prominent leaders, such as Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt, Paul and her important role in the suffrage movement stand at the center of this book, which recovers her rightful place in the narrative as an influential political leader.
The book is a political biography that examines Paul’s life from her childhood in the Quaker community of Moorestown, New Jersey, to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. As the subtitle of the book, “Claiming Power,” indicates, Zahniser and Fry are interested in not only tracing Paul’s life but also describing her path to power as an important suffrage leader. Detailing her familial origins and social networks, as well as her professional route in academia, the authors demonstrate that while Paul’s Quaker heritage certainly played a role in her political development, it was only a minor part of the reason she became a suffragist. Paul’s Quaker education instilled in her a sense of justice and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good, while her experience as a graduate student in New York exposed her to settlement and reform work and made her aware of social injustices and of working-class conditions. Yet it was her experiences in England, and in particular her work with the Pankhurst sisters and their organization, Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), that turned Paul into a suffrage leader. The British suffrage campaign, and especially its militant branch, Zahniser and Fry claim, “became the crucible forging [Paul’s] leadership potential” (p. 41). It was through her involvement with the WSPU that Paul found her calling, and it was her experiences there that cultivated her persona as a leader, not just a participant. Additionally, and more important to the authors’ purpose, in the WSPU, Paul became familiarized with efficient methods of political campaigning, formed valuable networks, and gained a critical experience in a variety of tactics that she later perfected upon her return to the United States.
If the first six chapters deal with Paul’s formation as a leader, the remainder of the book details her leadership and activities as part of the Congressional Union (CU) and later the National Woman’s Party. These chapters describe the fight for suffrage in the years from 1913 to 1920, the years when Paul’s life and the movement’s history become intertwined. Zahniser and Fry offer a fresh interpretation of Paul’s role in the suffrage movement and the motivations that inspired her, yet it is in these chapters that Paul, the individual, remains the most elusive. This is not completely the authors’ deliberate choice, as like many women of her generation who often needed to navigate between their political activities and societal norms of gender propriety, Paul did not leave much information or archival trail of her personal life. Despite these difficulties, however, the authors succeed in providing an innovative perspective of Paul’s work and the challenges she faced as a young woman who claimed her right for political equality.
In their sketching of Paul’s leadership, Zahniser and Fry grapple with the problematic racist legacy of the suffrage movement, as well as with Paul’s own reputation as an autocratic and even a despotic leader. They present her as a savvy politician and as an opportunist who was willing to sacrifice her values, friends, and beliefs for the cause she deemed the most important. Paul’s uncompromising determination, as the authors show, caused her to conceal African American presence in the 1913 suffrage parade in DC, fearing it would deter support for suffrage. At the same time, it also caused Paul to willingly endure again the horrors of force-feeding and hunger strikes, an experience she went through in England and was reluctant to repeat. Paul’s excellent campaigning senses made her forego, again reluctantly, her connections with the Pankhursts when they became too much of a threat for the success of the American campaign. Her insistence to keep campaigning and directly challenging President Woodrow Wilson, even with the onset of war, not only kept the suffrage issue on the public mind but also proved her ability to read correctly the changing political map and to use it to her benefit. Paul’s determination to achieve suffrage by any means necessary cost her friends, lovers, allies, and health, but her integrity also won her the support of others, such as Elva Belmont who provided crucial financial support, and Harriet Stanton Blatch, who despite rough beginnings, proved to be an important ally. Although the authors present a fairly balanced analysis of her character, their evident affection of Paul sometimes prevents them from truly coming to terms with the more controversial aspects of her leadership.
As a political biography that tries “to untangle gender-bound notions of power from our understanding of Alice Paul” and to tell her story “from her point of view” (p. 2), the book presents a revised, even if at times too favorable, interpretation of Paul’s role in the movement that made her indispensible to the campaign’s success. While the authors’ choice to end the book with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment is understandable given their objective of reclaiming Paul’s role in the victory, one is left to wonder how our understanding of Paul and her feminism would be different if the narrative had continued past 1920 to describe Paul’s political career at the NWP and her fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. As the only suffragist leader to be alive to see the rise of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s, Paul should be remembered beyond her suffrage activities, and the book misses the opportunity to situate her political career in a larger feminist context. Nevertheless, through their meticulous and extensive research, Zahniser and Fry have produced an important biography that would be of interest to anyone who wants to know more about the radical branch of the suffrage movement and Paul. The authors rise to the difficult task of portraying a complicated, often fraught, history in well-written prose, and succeed in situating Paul and the NWP in their rightful place in the canon of suffrage leaders.
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Einav Rabinovitch-Fox. Review of Zahniser, J. D.; Fry, Amelia R., Alice Paul: Claiming Power.
H-SHGAPE, H-Net Reviews.
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