When Alice Paul came to Birmingham University

Chris Game

On August 18th, much of America celebrated the centenary of women finally gaining the vote, when Tennessee became the decisive 36th state to ratify the US Constitution’s 19th Amendment.

With some property-owning women in the Northern colonies having been voting before the United States was created – then having that right removed by the new all-male state legislatures – it took a long, sometimes bitter and unedifying, battle, but one absolutely worth commemorating.

Some perspective: that eventual 19th Amendment had been first introduced to Congress in 1878, seven years before one of the most militant and mostly admirable leaders of the final struggle was even born. I refer to Alice Paul, around whom PBS America’s excellent recent TV documentary, ‘The Vote’, was structured.

Paul was joint founder in 1916 of the National Woman’s Party – with her friend and equally radical contemporary, Lucy Burns – and its leader for decades. She/they instigated countless laws furthering women’s equality, secured equal rights guarantees in both the UN Charter and 1964 Civil Rights Act, and drafted the Equal Rights Amendment, which could theoretically have been the US Constitution’s 20th.

It doesn’t sound outlandish for a supposed democracy: equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the US or any state on account of sex.  Yet, introduced in 1923, it took 49 years for Congress to approve it, then a further 49 for Virginia to become, in January this year, the required 38th state to ratify it.

Now, in football parlance, it seems likely to be ruled ‘aaet’ – after ‘after extra time’ – a sad, if in no way diminishing, postscript to Alice Paul’s long and exceptional campaigning career.  Back quickly, then, to that career’s start, for her suffragette epiphany, her radical realisation, owed everything to her brief stay in her early twenties in Birmingham.  No, not the Alabama one. Our Birmingham.

Alice – no, I’m not at all sure she’d excuse the familiarity – came from New Jersey, near the Quaker state of Philadelphia. Bright eldest daughter of a successful businessman/gentleman farmer and college-educated mother, she was raised as a Hicksite Quaker – same Orthodox Quaker emphasis on simplicity, perseverance and social improvement, less on the Bible, much more on gender equality.

Despite, or possibly because of, a first degree in biology, she was increasingly attracted to applied social work. This prompted a Master’s thesis entitled ‘Towards Equality’, followed in 1907 by a one-year fellowship at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Selly Oak.

Recently founded by George Cadbury as – still, I believe – Europe’s only Quaker study and training centre, Woodbrooke also had links almost from the outset with the University of Birmingham, and Alice would certainly at least have attended lectures there.

But here’s the tricky bit.  A summation of the numerous available accounts would be that the totally transformative event in Alice’s early life was attending a Women’s Suffrage meeting in Birmingham. There she heard the ‘charismatic’ Christabel Pankhurst – also still in her twenties – lucidly putting the case for militant action for women’s suffrage, and dealing simultaneously with a predominantly male, hostile, abusive audience. Following which – sometime, somewhere – Alice met Christabel personally and was, apparently, “converted, heart and soul” to the militant Suffragette cause.

But where exactly?  And, assuming it did happen, could that key personal meeting and Alice’s Pauline/Damascene conversion have taken place in the University of Birmingham, a retrospective highlight of its early Edgbaston years?

Most accounts, unsurprisingly, are vague, obviously embellished, or demonstrably inaccurate. One seemingly indisputable fact, though, is that Christabel Pankhurst and her mother, Emmeline, did speak and were heckled at a Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) meeting at Birmingham Town Hall on November 20th, 1907.

That had to be it, surely.  Besides, that is the occasion extensively described in former Boston Globe journalist Tina Cassidy’s recent full, if florid, Alice Paul biography – Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait?  – from the opening pages of which I apologise in advance for quoting at appallingly self-indulgent length, partly because it’s loosely evidential, but mainly because it’s such fun.

November 20, 1907 – Birmingham, England.  Alice Paul finished dinner with classmates at Woodbrooke [and] excused herself …  Gathering up her long, heavy skirt, she mounted a rented bike and began the four-mile pedal … through the fog to Town Hall in Birmingham.

Hundreds of people were inside.  Many were male students from the University of Birmingham, where Paul was taking classes. She was the first and only woman enrolled in the University’s Department of Commerce. She was fearless among 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, however, had a different agenda …  Like most of their peers, they believed women belonged at home … and that these Pankhurst women needed to be silenced … they began to shake rattles, ring bells, and blow whistles and toy trumpets.

Unfazed by the chaos, Christabel Pankhurst stepped on to the stage with striking poise. She seemed effortlessly confident … the men, however, were not softened by her affect.  They roared for several minutes, waving their hats, sticks and handkerchiefs provocatively as she patiently endured.

“We have come to explain our tactics,” Christabel asserted, trying to pierce the pandemonium.  The crowd hushed briefly before someone hurled a dead mouse into the air, causing the hall to erupt into hysteria as the rodent was squeamishly caught and tossed like a hot potato.

Inspired and disturbed, Paul was riveted … until her senses were suddenly overwhelmed by the offensive odour of rotten eggs. Someone had released a hydrogen-sulfide (sic) stink bomb, creating an atmosphere so foul that the room emptied within seconds … Paul climbed back on her bicycle and returned to Woodbrooke.  She felt the electricity in her body. It was unlike anything she had felt before.”

Clearly no one-to-one meeting there.  But anyway, why would Christabel be chatting to, say, a university student seminar when venues like the Town Hall were available to her?

The answer, I tentatively suggest, is to be found in another quite recent American account – this time from Clark Edwards, a former graduate student at an Indiana liberal arts college, who, searching for a possible thesis topic, discovered his paternal grandmother had been appointed legal guardian of Alice Paul’s papers.  Nice one!

Among other ‘goodies’, Edwards reveals that Sir Oliver Lodge, distinguished physicist and Birmingham University’s first Chancellor, concerned by his students’ role in Christabel’s earlier hostile reception, invited her back – this time to the University – “to give a second speech, apologised and required all students to attend and listen.”

It’s not exactly unassailable evidence, but it satisfies me personally that the two young women did meet meaningfully at ‘my’ University, and that the encounter inspired or re-inspired Alice’s conversion to the Suffragettes’ militant campaign methods.

Delaying her planned return to the US, she joined the Pankhursts and became one of the most dedicated militants. She marched, protested, physically attacked leading politicians, smashed Parliamentary windows, got arrested (seven times), imprisoned (three times), sentenced to ‘hard labour’, went on hunger-strike, was forcibly fed through her nostrils (55 times) – all before even starting on amending the US Constitution. Exceptional woman!

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

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