WASHINGTON — If only Hillary Clinton and Alice Paul could have a cup of coffee. A major figure in American history, suffrage champion Paul was a political strategist with few equals. Her winning blueprint for social change gives Clinton the best way forward.
Upfront: Heck yes, becoming the first female president is a rockier road than that faced by Barack Obama, the first black president.
Bleakly, Paul might say, Hillary, nothing is simple and Iowa is stubborn. Clinton can’t afford to lose the first 2016 contest again, but Iowa has never elected a Democratic woman to statewide office.
The “Votes for Women” leader opened way for Clinton and her brilliant career to run for president. Right now, Paul’s storied movement yields lessons relevant to Clinton’s quest. The truly great, unsung heroine was old — or young — enough to be Clinton’s grandmother.
How woman suffrage was won, 95 Augusts ago, is a riveting drama that played out in street scenes in the nation’s capital. Boldly, Paul focused her mass movement on the federal government. Woodrow Wilson never had a chance against her.
President Wilson, head of the federal government, was front and center of all Paul’s plans. No conventions in Cleveland for her. She never wavered from her White House strategy.
Wilson hated always having to pass by women’s vigils and signs by his gates. No political leader had done such organizing before, historian Jean B. Harvey tells us. Paul took the suffrage movement across the finish line in 1920. She’s also the author of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Starkly, Paul might urge Clinton to ditch a gender-blind bid, the 2008 campaign model. When social revolution is in the air, she’d say, be the change we want to see. Women feel embattled, and in fact they are, a point Clinton could press to her advantage.
Emphasizing her own historic candidacy would energize waves of women. It’s true many don’t like her lawyerly zeal, but Abraham Lincoln had it, too.
Paul waged a modern movement with thousands of women, volunteers drawn mostly from America’s first generation of college-educated women. Imagine, without the Internet.
Emboldened, they flocked to the National Woman’s Party townhouse headquarters, based near the Capitol. This was a night-and-day female operation with morale, cohesion and purpose.
There were no men in the vanguard of ranks or marches, because suffrage was not “given” by men. Paul knew it must be “taken” by an army of women working for it.
Clinton’s camp is co-ed, rightly. Yet, Paul would say, keep a sharp sense of struggle. Paul and others were arrested, jailed and force-fed at one point in their nonviolent resistance. Wilson let the abuse pass, as outrage grew. Paul’s literal hunger for justice meant vigilance against incoming fire. But then, nobody needs to tell Clinton that.
As public as scenes were, the movement was also a personal match of wills between a brilliant woman outside and a brilliant man inside the Oval Office.
Striking and self-possessed, Paul was not yet 30 when she threw down the gauntlet in 1913. President-elect Wilson arrived in Washington by train, the story goes, demanding, where were people to greet him?
The answer: “They are out watching the suffrage parade, sir!” Paul’s pageant led the newspapers. Wilson didn’t like it one bit.
In the 19th century under Susan B. Anthony, suffrage languished. In 1906, Anthony died. Another at the helm for decades, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, died in 1902. So a path cleared for Paul to infuse a staid movement with new techniques she learned from London’s “suffragette” struggle.
Contrasts between Paul and Wilson are so rich. Descended from William Penn, the colonial founder of Pennsylvania, Paul was a birthright Quaker, educated at co-ed Swarthmore College, class of 1905. Wilson, a cultural Southerner and a Princeton man, was born before the Civil War.
Visionary on foreign affairs, Wilson was no friend to female nor people of color. He shifted on suffrage, partly because of the first World War, when women joined the war mobilization.
Finally, Paul might add a fact never to forget: The vote, democracy’s passport, went to black men in 1865 — 55 years before the “Votes for Women” constitutional amendment. Enlarging democracy is never easy, Hillary, I can hear her say. A sage.
As the nation enters a phase with more promise for a woman president than ever, her suffrage movement speaks across the sea of time.
Photo: Women’s suffrage activist Alice Paul, via the Library of Congress.