An eye-opening, inspiring, and timely account of the complex relationship between notable suffragist Alice Paul and President Woodrow Wilson in her fight for women’s equality.
Woodrow Wilson lands in Washington, DC in March of 1913, a day before he is set to take the presidential oath of office. Expecting a throng of onlookers, he is instead met with minimal interest as the crowd and media alike watch a twenty-five-year-old Alice Paul organize 8,000 suffragists in a first-of-its-kind protest led by a woman riding a white horse just a few blocks away from the Washington platform. The next day, the New York Times calls the procession “one of the most impressively beautiful spectacles ever staged in this country.”
Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait? weaves together two storylines: Paul’s and Wilson’s, two seemingly complete opposites who had more in common than either one could imagine. Paul’s procession led her to be granted a one-on-one meeting with President Woodrow Wilson, one that would lead to many meetings and much discussion, though little progress. With no equality in sight and patience wearing thin, Paul organized the first group to ever picket on the White House lawn—night and day, through sweltering summer mornings and frigid fall nights.
From solitary confinement, hunger strikes, and mental institutions to sitting right across from President Woodrow Wilson, Mr. President,How Long Must We Wait? reveals the inspiring, near-death journey it took, spearheaded in no small part by Paul's leadership, to grant women the right to vote in America. A rousing portrait of a little-known feminist heroine and an inspirational exploration of a crucial moment in American history—one century before the Women’s March—this is a perfect book for fans of Hidden Figures.
Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait? CHAPTER ONE A Quaker from New Jersey
Alice Paul. Published in 1918.
November 20, 1907. Birmingham, England. Alice Paul finished dinner with classmates at Woodbrooke, an imposing limestone Georgian estate set in the countryside at almost exactly the center of England. Quakers, like Paul, traveled here from around the world to study social justice and other progressive pursuits. As the servants began clearing the long dining table, Paul excused herself and hastened upstairs to her corner room—a shared space with two large windows and a fireplace as its only source of heat—to prepare for the night.
The fur coat she had begged her mother to ship from the closet in the family farmhouse in Moorestown, New Jersey, in early October had not yet arrived. A perceived extravagance, the fur was a practical staple for the daughter of William Paul, who was a wealthy banker, but contrasted starkly with Paul’s student wardrobe, which reflected her necessary thrift as well as a lack of focus on fashion. Her plain clothes were so threadbare that she would fashion a ragged silk dress into a top, as she had just done, rather than throw it away. She bundled up as warmly as she could and did not fuss with jewelry or makeup on her deep-set blue eyes. She grabbed her ticket for the event and walked out into the dark and damp.
Gathering up her long, heavy skirt, she mounted a rented bike and began the familiar four-mile pedal into town. It was uncommon for a woman to ride a bike, but Paul was athletic—a basketball and hockey player—and had been encouraged by her parents since childhood to participate in sports, which girls seldom did. As Quakers, the Pauls believed that all people were equal in the eyes of God, regardless of gender or race; that boys and girls should be given the same opportunities; and that they all had a responsibility to stand up for equality. They believed in justice and fairness and practiced these concepts in their daily lives.
Paul rode boldly through the fog to Town Hall in Birmingham. Her chestnut hair—parted in the middle and loosely pinned in a bun—was swept back in wild strands as she sped toward the industrial city. She was journeying to see two “suffragettes,” the term for militant activists working for women’s right to vote.
It was nearly 8 p.m. when Paul parked her bike and made her way through the Town Hall’s arched entry. Hundreds of people were inside. Many were male students from the University of Birmingham where Paul was taking classes, in addition to her twelve courses at Woodbrooke. She was the first and only woman enrolled in the university’s Department of Commerce. She was fearless around them; unabashed, she strove for what she wanted.
Paul had come to listen to a mother-daughter team talk about their Votes for Women campaign. The men at Town Hall, however, had a different agenda, conspiring to undermine these rising leaders of England’s suffrage movement. The pair, a widow named Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, had been making headlines for their tactics: spitting at the police, interrupting the speeches of politicians by shouting “Votes for Women!” and handing out leaflets on street corners. The men inside Town Hall, like most of their peers, thought granting women the right to vote was outrageous. They believed women belonged at home, their minds uncorrupted by politics, and that these Pankhurst women—ringleaders who were whipping up pro-suffrage sentiment all over Britain—needed to be silenced.
Paul surveyed the room in search of a seat. A crush of students thronged the main floor and the upper galleries overlooking the stage. An organist played in an effort to settle the audience into their seats, however, the music instead stirred the men into action. They began to shake rattles, ring bells, and blow whistles and toy trumpets. This auditory battle between organist and crowd escalated for several minutes until it became so rowdy that four policemen intervened. The Bobbies’ presence only triggered sarcastic cheers.
“Stop!” the police inspector shouted.
“Speeeeeech,” the men shouted back at him.
Unfazed by the chaos, Christabel Pankhurst stepped onto the stage with striking poise. She seemed effortlessly confident; nothing like the newspapers’ recent reports of an uncouth woman verbally attacking members of Parliament. When Christabel smiled at the surrounding mob, her face was illuminated. Paul could not help but consider her own smile, which revealed dimples and two slightly protruding front teeth. She noted how polished and attractive the twenty-seven-year-old Christabel, just four years her senior, appeared in comparison. The men, however, were not so softened by her affect. They roared at the suffragette for several minutes, waving their hats, sticks, and handkerchiefs provocatively as she patiently endured.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Christabel projected over the din. “The students of Birmingham gave us on the occasion of our last visit so kind a welcome that I am not surprised to find their enthusiasm for women’s suffrage is still unabated.”
Despite her straining, Paul could not make out Christabel’s words and was horrified by the rude antics of the audience. As a child growing up in New Jersey, Paul had attended suffrage meetings with her mother, Tacie Paul, and other Quakers, including men, where everyone agreed unanimously on the issue. She also belonged to a suffrage society, the Moorestown League. Quakers were taught to listen respectfully to others. The intense discord with which Paul was now confronted was both a shock and a thrill.
“Tit for tat,” the students chanted.
“There seem to be one or two of you in the gallery who are not quite out of the nursery and brought your toys with you,” Christabel said. Such acerbic wit would have served her well had she pursued her dream of becoming a lawyer. Unfortunately, the English bar did not accept women, leading Christabel to choose a different path: joining her mother and sisters, Sylvia and Adela, to fight for voting rights.
“We have come to explain our tactics,” Christabel asserted, trying again to pierce the pandemonium.
The crowd hushed briefly before someone hurled a dead mouse into the air, causing the hall to erupt in hysteria as the rodent was squeamishly caught and tossed like a hot potato. Christabel called her mother to the stage to take her place. Emmeline obliged as a woman in the audience rose to her feet in defense of the suffragettes, chastising the men: “Don’t interrupt!”
“We have just come from a meeting with dockworkers and fishermen,” Emmeline proclaimed, increasing the volume. They listened. “Are the educated young men of Birmingham afraid of what we have to say?”
A student, wearing glasses and a hat, sounded a bugle. The young woman seated beside him immediately plucked his hat from his head and pelted him with it. In a final act of defiance, he launched the bugle toward the stage as a steward and three policemen descended upon him.
Emmeline engaged with the struggle in a diplomatic effort to defuse the situation, reaching to shake the student’s hand and assuring him that he could stay if he promised to stop.
“Now, as I was saying . . .”
The crowd again interrupted, expressing their objection with rattles and horns, bursting into a rendition of the national anthem, “God Save the King,” as forty more officers flooded into the hall.
Paul remained transfixed by Emmeline Pankhurst.
“I’m prepared to stay here all night,” Emmeline announced, with her arms outstretched to the audience. “If your mothers were here tonight they must blush to think they have borne such creatures.”
The men, standing on their seats and assaulting their instruments in jarring unison, launched into “Auld Lang Syne.” Emmeline folded her arms and held her ground for a full hour, determined to be heard. “We’ve played by the constitutional rules for forty years!” she shouted. For Emmeline, a little time on this stage, waiting for the crowd to behave, was only a drop of dedication in an ocean of effort.
• • •
British women had been fighting for voting rights for decades. Historically, only men who owned significant amounts of land could vote. By 1868, the government had extended the right to all male heads of household, defined as a working man with at least one child to support. But on both sides of the Atlantic, women were still struggling to make progress.
In America, Elizabeth Cady Stanton had organized the first women’s rights convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Her friend and fellow Quaker suffragist Susan B. Anthony became a household name when, in protest, she attempted to vote in 1872 and was arrested for doing so. The U.S. Constitution did not explicitly grant voting rights to anyone. Instead, it allowed those who could already vote the ability to give or withhold those same rights from anyone else. Those in the pioneering American West were among the first willing to let women cast ballots: Wyoming in 1869 and Utah in 1870, before either was a state; Colorado in 1893; and Idaho in 1896. Internationally, things were more advanced. New Zealand and Australia, for example, allowed women to vote as of 1893 and 1902, respectively. America, despite the efforts of women’s suffrage advocates across the nation, was trailing far behind the progress of other countries on the issue. In fact, Paul’s mother had worked for suffrage and even brought a young Alice to the Pennsylvania state suffrage convention in 1900.
• • •
Now it was 1907. After years of dwindling momentum in England and the United States, the Pankhursts were committed to rallying new women to the cause. That night in Birmingham, they couldn’t have known how lucky they were to have the quiet American in their midst. Inspired and disturbed, Paul was riveted, absorbing every moment—until her senses were suddenly overwhelmed by the offensive odor of rotten eggs. Someone had released a hydrogen-sulfide stink bomb, creating an atmosphere so foul that the room emptied within seconds. Emmeline left the stage. The organist struck the keys once more, as if leading a church recessional. Paul climbed back on her bicycle and returned to Woodbrooke. She could feel the electricity in her body. It was unlike anything she had felt before.
• • •
Later that night, back in her dormitory, Paul felt a profound sense of change. Her environment seemed smaller, beyond the physical sense. Paul recognized that while some of her fellow scholars had enrolled at Woodbrooke in sincere pursuit of knowledge and social education, other students—like her American roommate—were seeking frivolity. Activities on the estate included tennis and afternoon tea, a ritual enjoyed outside on a sweeping lawn so picturesque it was featured on the postcards available to be sent back home.
Paul, a fast talker and faster thinker, had little interest in her roommate’s vacant expressions and intellectual idleness—or any idleness at all. At age sixteen, Paul had been elected high school valedictorian at a Quaker school in Moorestown, near the gentleman’s farm on which she was raised. Later, at Swarthmore College, she had majored in biology; not because she wanted to, but because she felt an obligation to strengthen her understanding of the subject about which she knew least. After graduation, she had completed a yearlong fellowship at a settlement house in lower Manhattan. There, Paul helped people from eastern and central Europe—mostly Jews and Italians—assimilate to American life at this historic peak of immigration, with 1.3 million people entering the United States as legal residents. She had also helped to form a labor union while she earned another degree, this one in social work, from the New York School of Philanthropy.
Paul believed it was her purpose in life to help others and assumed that the best way to achieve this was through social work. But she became disillusioned with this conviction when confronted with the prevailing struggles of citizens all around her, her efforts making little difference. In search of solutions to the injustices she witnessed, Paul returned to school. She was interested in attending Princeton, but the university did not accept women—or black men. The school’s president, Woodrow Wilson, presided over this exclusion. Instead, she attended the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a master’s degree in sociology; one of the only women to do so. Her thesis was called “Toward Equality.”
Despite earning three degrees in three years—1905, 1906, and 1907—her diplomas were not enough to quench Paul’s thirst for learning. Her intellectual appetite led her to England and Woodbrooke and inspired a heavy course load, including German, Islam, sociology, and economics. During her stay, Paul realized that she still had much to learn about life beyond academia. As the school year drew to a close, she felt a reluctance to return home, as though her experience was not yet complete. Seeking a new challenge, Paul’s instinct was validated when she witnessed a Quaker named Lucy Gardner deliver a lecture at Woodbrooke. Gardner was the leader of the London district Charity Organisation Society, which coordinated social services for the poor. Intrigued by what she had heard, Paul spoke with Gardner, who offered Paul a job as her assistant at the end of the academic year.
Paul seized the opportunity and moved into a settlement house in Hoxton, a poor section in East London, living among those she helped. Every moment of every day was infused with some kind of harsh reality: parents burying their children, men and women desperately searching for jobs, people lacking education and opportunity. But, fearless in the face of adversity, Paul proved a natural for the position. She was a formidable taskmaster, assessing three of her aides as incompetent, and a brilliant organizer, who was able to work on little food or rest without complaint. Not long after Paul arrived in Hoxton, a member of the settlement staff—a suffragist—informed her of two upcoming Votes for Women rallies. More than curious, she chose to attend both.
• • •
Paul rode the underground to the first of the two big protests. She emerged at Embankment Station to find herself buffeted by a moody wind and thousands of like-minded people swirling outside on a mid-June day, all of them joining a massive march in support of votes for women. Seeking direction, her eyes fell on an event steward sporting the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies’ (NUWSS) red and white colors, which stood out against the gray sky. The leader of the NUWSS, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, was a popular figure, known for refuting the many ridiculous reasons why women should not be permitted to vote. The arguments against suffrage included: that men alone already sufficiently represented women with their best interests in mind; that women were too easily influenced by men, and therefore, their vote would only echo that of the men; that women were so obstinate they might vote differently from their family, creating discord; that domestic life should have one leader, a structure that would be destroyed if women voted; and finally, that women were intellectually inferior to men.
The NUWSS was the more mainstream of the two key suffrage groups in the United Kingdom. The other was the Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), whose members distinguished themselves from ordinary suffragists by calling themselves suffragettes. Fawcett often openly criticized the WSPU’s tactics—friction the press exploited.
The event steward guided Paul to the marching section for the American participants, where she merged with the lineup behind Dr. Anna Howard Shaw. Shaw was president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the foremost women’s enfranchisement group in the United States. Although British-born, Shaw had immigrated to America as a child and grew up in the deep woods of Michigan. These rural formative years instilled physical stamina and fortitude, enabling her to become a physician and America’s first female Methodist minister. Now, silver-haired and sixty-one, Shaw’s vigor endured as she took to the global stage, fighting for women’s rights. Paul was fast on her heels.
Paul fell into step behind Shaw and followed her as one of the thirteen thousand marching to a ticketed rally at Royal Albert Hall. Awestruck and exhilarated, Paul absorbed the colorful scene around her as they progressed. The women were dressed in capes and academic robes. Some carried signs acknowledging professional sections of midwives, teachers, and nurses. Others held vivid velvet, silk, and embroidered banners, expressing artists’ depictions of Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth, and other historically heroic women. When the parade reached its destination, the women settled inside the hall and Fawcett took center stage.
“This magnificent demonstration filled our hearts with hopefulness and courage and seems to bring us within measurable distance of our final triumph! Our cause is the greatest in the world. I appeal to all of you—dedicate your life to its success.”
When Fawcett concluded, she invited Shaw to speak. The bold American was blunter in her delivery. “It’s impossible to be just to men,” she said, “so long as men are incapable of being just to women.”
Despite Shaw’s sharp remarks, the next day’s papers noted how well behaved the NUWSS members were, compared with those at past Pankhurst events. “The speeches made in the Albert Hall at the end of the long walk were distinguished for their dignity and reserve,” the Times of London wrote, “and were in marked contrast to the childish and vexatious methods adopted by the more excitable advocates of the same cause.” A week later, Paul had the opportunity to judge for herself the contrast between these two rival suffrage groups.
• • •
Paul rode the tube yet again to Embankment Station, this time for the WSPU’s first large-scale public event, which organizers christened “Suffrage Sunday.” She exited the underground and was met by a warm summer day, bright blue skies, and a massive number of women—much more than the previous week’s march.
In place of the usual long black skirts, most of the women wore white dresses. Broad straw hats, parasols, and belts were decorated with purple, white, and green ribbons; these were the WSPU’s colors, representing freedom, purity, and hope. Others wore “Votes for Women” sashes.
Marching bands, megaphones, and bugles led the demonstration, while writers, artists, cotton spinners, factory workers, slum dwellers, and upper-class women followed on foot, by car, by carriage, or aboard special trains that brought them close to the demonstration area. Spectators flanked the streets, smiling and excitedly waving handkerchiefs. Some hung from their windows to watch the activity below. In Trafalgar Square, George Bernard Shaw, the famous playwright, stood on the curb, watching his wife, Charlotte Frances Payne-Townshend, go by.
Paul joined a section with Christabel Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, the WSPU’s treasurer. The front line carried an eight-by-ten-foot banner that read REBELLION TO TYRANTS IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD. The French contingent banner simply said LA SOLIDARITÉ DES FEMMES.
Resolute, they pressed on toward Hyde Park, a former royal hunting ground near Buckingham Palace. Women from all walks of life filed through every gate, over the Serpentine Bridge, and onto the lush lawn, where spring had bloomed. Nearly half a million people assembled against the cherry-blossomed backdrop, united in the name of progress.
Twenty temporary platforms spread out across the park supported passionate suffrage speakers as crowds clustered tightly around them. The Pankhurst stage drew the most attention, with attendees straining to catch a glimpse of Emmeline and Christabel. Men, some curious and some hostile, heckled the suffragettes and began shoving to get closer, causing a near panic. Verbal and physical altercations erupted.
“Why not try to be gentlemen in the presence of ladies?” one woman yelled.
“Do you think we’re going to be governed by women? If they want to be men, why don’t they be men? Let ’em go work on a ship,” a young man responded. “Let ’em go home and mind the baby!”
It continued like this for hours. At 5 p.m., after eighty speeches, the sound of bugles signaled the end of the program and the creation of a resolution that would be sent to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith the following day, demanding that, if taxed, women should have a say in how the government spent their money.
“Votes for Women!” the crowd cheered. “Votes for Women! Votes for Women!”
The chant rung in Paul’s ears long into that night and throughout the rest of the summer.
• • •
When fall came around, Paul began classes at the London School of Economics, as well as a new job at the Peel Institute, a charity with strong Quaker roots. She moved into a shoddy apartment, a two-room attic space with the rustling sounds of rodents and no running water. But she could barely afford even these meager accommodations. The family wealth back home was there, but her widowed mother was increasingly parsimonious, and had much to manage with the family farm and Paul’s three siblings, William, Helen, and Parry, all younger.
There were very few women at the London School of Economics, so when Paul spotted Rachel Barrett on campus she naturally introduced herself. Barrett told Paul she was a WSPU organizer and asked her if she would sell Votes for Women—the group’s newspaper—with her. Fully aware that helping might provoke the anger of strangers, Paul agreed. Standing on the street, waving the suffrage paper, people pelted Paul with rotten food and stones. On another day, a cab driver swerved toward her, forcing her to the ground. Even women cursed her. But she persevered. As word spread through the WSPU ranks that Paul was something special, she received another assignment—public speaking on the street, at tube stations, and inside trains. Throughout the winter months, day after day, Paul would literally stand on a soap box on the streets of London, appealing to the public on behalf of the suffrage cause. In the midst of this excitement, Paul realized that she had neglected to answer her mother’s letters for some time. She hurried a note home, explaining her extracurricular activities: “I have joined the ‘suffragettes’—the militant party,” she wrote.
• • •
With the school year almost at an end, Paul’s future was undecided. After nearly two years abroad, not only was she homesick, but her mother missed her terribly and yearned for her return. Paul booked her passage on a transatlantic ship and began counting down the days until her departure the following month.
Tina Cassidy is the executive vice president and chief content officer at the public relations and social content firm InkHouse and also a board member at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. She has written two previous nonfiction books, Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born and Jackie After O: One Remarkable Year When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Defied Expectations and Rediscovered her Dreams. Previously, she was a journalist at The Boston Globe, where she covered politics, sports, fashion, and business.
“A remarkable tale... This book should be required reading until Alice Paul becomes a household name. She not only fought for voting rights and the 19th Amendment; she kept fighting for another 50 years.”
– Kirkus Reviews
"While this book brings to life one of the most important stories of the 20th century, Mr. President is essential reading for today, showing us what it takes to lead a movement, create positive change, and force government to be accountable to the people. It's an inspiring reminder of what one committed person can do." -- Keith O'Brien, author of the New York Times Bestselling Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History
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