Alice Paul is a name forever stamped into our minds as Swatties. From yellowing history textbooks to the shiny, new dorm with its large window panes and vibrant red walls, Alice Paul ’07 has become iconic.
In honor of Swarthmore College’s sesquicentennial anniversary, Harvard graduate and acclaimed journalist Mary Walton gave a talk in the Schueur Room on Thursday on Paul and her co-activist, Mabel Vernon ‘06, titled “Battle for the Ballot.”
Walton’s lecture marked three important milestones: in addition to kicking off the college’s sesquicentennial celebration, it also commemorated the middle of International Peace week, as well as the Department of Peace & Conflict Studies’ 125th anniversary.
Prominent leaders of the Suffragette Movement of the 1910s, Paul and Vernon paved the way for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. It was through their dedication to the cause and their revolutionary tactics that drove progress within the nation. No longer the demure and modest ladies oppressed by the cult of domesticity, Paul and Vernon responded to the shift in social attitude of the early 20th century, calling for equality.
Both women became increasingly vocal in the move towards women’s rights for the ballot. Paul was arrested seven times, going on hunger strikes in her detainment. When Paul refused to eat, she was subjected to being force fed through a tube down her throat. Vernon also had a first-hand experience of the cruelties of prisons, having been arrested multiple times as well. Yet it did not deter them from their quest to obtain suffrage, leading both to organize some of the first real social protests in Washington and Paul to pen the Equal Rights Amendment.
Vernon proved to be an indispensable companion to Paul; she had the oratory talent and skill that Paul lacked. Both had deep Quaker roots and an incredible passion, and met on Swarthmore campus. Vernon’s incredible oratory skills first drew Paul, who was terrified of public speaking, to seek her help. What started as a simple public speaking lesson to recite what Walton called Paul’s “Little Ivy Poem” at graduation became rallies and street corner speeches rousing the pathos of passing pedestrians.
Swarthmore College became the stage for not only the lasting relationship between Paul and Vernon, but the soon-to-be revolutionary movement for equal rights. Walton noted that it was the shared Quaker value of absolute equality, manifested both in the women’s upbringing and the college’s principles, that became the backbone for the movement. Swarthmore, even then, was a hotbed of social change and passionate voices for equality.
Although co-ed, Walton called to attention the limitations of Swarthmore in the 1910s.
“It was feasible and desirable to give to woman equal facilities as men, but another to trust them with each other,” she said.
She proceeded to dive into the second President of the College, Edward Magill, and his infamous “100 rules”, containing regulations that Paul and Vernon would have surely reacted to. One particularly memorable rule stated that “students of the two sexes, except brothers and sisters, shall not walk together on the grounds of the College, nor in the neighborhood, nor to or from the railroad station or the skating grounds. They shall not coast upon the same sled.”
Paul went on to do social work, and Vernon went on to teach, yet both found the work stagnant and yearned for a change that would shake the foundations upon which society stood on. Thus, in true Swarthmore fashion, they reconvened to join and ultimately lead the suffragette movement against societal expectations of a lost cause to the moment of triumph that Walton celebrated in her talk.
To Walton, Paul and Vernon were the David against the Goliath of a male-dominated government. Walton praised the accomplishments of Paul and Vernon as a victory for the suffragette movement in the “quintessential battle of a person versus the impossible.”
The lecture ended with a slide of Alice Paul, shrunken and withered from decades of wear and tear, yet surrounded by the new wave feminists of the 70s. Even in her old age, her defiance and outspoken nature shone through dark, intense eyes and the hardened determination about her mouth, getting ready to spark the passions of social change.
Between her time at Swarthmore as a shy yet determined student to her metamorphosis into a passionate activist, Paul was and still is revered as one of the greatest leaders for social justice. She speaks to students, feminists, activists, and humans alike through her inspiring actions.
“As a journalist at heart,” Walton said, “it was a great story with a great beginning, middle, and end.”