On November 9, 1909, an American visiting student at the LSE was arrested for disrupting the Lord Mayor’s Banquet. Alice Paul and her friend had snuck in disguised as cleaners, before surprising the guests (including the entire British Cabinet) by throwing their shoes and shouting ‘Votes for Women!’ They were sent to prison, whereupon Paul went on hunger strike. She was held down, choked, and force-fed: her screams were heard all through the prison, and afterwards blood was streaming down her face. It became a news story on both sides of the Atlantic. The New York Times sent a reporter to interview Paul’s mother Tacie. ‘I cannot understand how all this came about,’ she told him. ‘Alice is such a mild-mannered girl.’
In some ways, Tacie Paul was right. Paul was mild-mannered by nature, but she was set on fire by a cause she knew to be just. She had a paralyzing fear of public speaking; but when she returned to America, she became one of the chief orators for women’s suffrage, and eventually the leader of the movement. She was incapable of small talk; but it is hard to imagine a shrewder negotiator or a more effective lobbyist. She decided, after a dispiriting day of handing out suffragist literature to contemptuous Londoners, that she wasn’t ‘very brave by nature’; but it was her courage, as much as anything else, which brought about the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in 1920, and guaranteeing women the same voting rights as men. Hard to believe this was less than a century ago: it is remarkable how quickly a proposal can change from being considered eccentric and dangerous to being universally accepted.
That, however, is not Alice Paul’s only significance for the pro-life movement. There is something else – a remark of hers which, though brief, tells an important story. ‘Abortion,’ she said, on almost the only recorded occasion when she talked about it, ‘is just another way of exploiting women.’
So powerful is this little statement that some ‘pro-choicers’ have tried to deny that Paul ever said it. But she did. Not only is the documentary evidence there, but it also sounds exactly like her. It has all her terse, unblinking honesty. Paul was not one to compromise – not with opponents, not with allies, not with herself. She thought that her love of detective stories might distract her from the campaign; well then, detective stories had to go. She carefully avoided bookshops, and kept her room freezing cold so that she would not be tempted to stay up reading. That was her way – when her mind was made up, she did not give an inch. She spoke like that, too. ‘Abortion is just another way of exploiting women.’
This baffles people because Paul was a women’s rights activist, wasn’t she? And pro-lifers only care about unborn babies, don’t they? But Paul, one of the clearest-sighted people of her age, knew better. She realised that when women are desperate enough to seek abortion, it is often as a result of (male) exploitation and irresponsibility. And that when society offers in response neither practical help, nor encouragement, nor the chance to develop a mother’s relationship with the soon-to-be-born child, nor the possibility of adoption, but instead offers a traumatising act of violence which takes away life – that sounds rather more like exploitation than liberation.
One fellow-suffragist recalled what it was like to meet Alice Paul: ‘When you ask her a question, there ensues, on her part, a moment of stillness so profound you can almost hear it. I think I have never seen anybody who can keep so still as Alice Paul.’ Out of that stillness she is still speaking, telling us that a protest against abortion is always a declaration of the rights of women.