Tuesday, January 11, 2011


When you put your hand to the plow, you can't put it down until you get to the end of the row.
--Alice Paul

January 11th is the birthday of Alice Paul, an extraordinary patriot who played a critical role in winning all American women the right to vote. She gained fame during a hunger strike she waged in 1917, after she and other suffragettes, nicknamed the “Iron-Jawed Angels,” were imprisoned for demonstrations before the White House. Paul survived state-sanctioned torture in the service of her just cause, and offers us a fine example of the virtue of Mettle.

What is Mettle? “Mettle,” according to the American Heritage dictionary, means Courage and Fortitude.” We can know the virtue through its three homophones, which also offer us three faces of Alice Paul:

What is Metal? A substance like iron, like steel, with properties of Strength, Hardness... Resistance. It offers excellent Conduction of Energy. Metals are forged, and Alice Paul, a champion of non-violent Resistance, had her character forged by an upbringing on the family farm in the Hicksite Quaker community of Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. Hicksite Quakers sought the Divine in the refuge of nature, but eschewed petty materialism. Alice Paul thus sought meaning not in mere matter, but in what matters.

What is Meddle? To interfere, to intervene, to involve oneself. The Quakers believed in gender equality and working for the betterment of society. Alice Paul, after working in the settlement movement in New York, left for Birmingham, England, in 1907 to study social work. There she joined England’s most radical suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst, whose militant faction believed in "Deeds not words." During one of many civil disobedience arrests, Alice Paul took as her slogan, "Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God."

What is a Medal? A prize, given in recognition for great acts. A reward for Endurance. Alice Paul returned to the U.S., and in 1917 formed the National Woman's Party (NWP) to fight for the prize of women’s suffrage. "Silent Sentinels" stood outside the White House, but given that the nation was at war, many saw them as unpatriotic. Angry mobs attacked the women, and police arrested them on a trumped-up charge of "obstructing traffic." At Occoquan Workhouse, a prison in Virginia, the women faced brutal treatment. Paul commenced a hunger strike, for which she was moved to the prison’s psychiatric ward and force-fed raw eggs through a plastic tube. After the torture was revealed in a newspaper story, the women won their release and public sympathy. President Wilson publicly called for women to have the vote, and two years later, in 1920, the 19th Amendment granted women’s suffrage. It happened thanks to Alice Paul. She was our prize.

Alice Paul’s moving story was told in a wonderful film about her activism, called Iron Jawed Angels:

Fellow activist and writer Crystal Eastman said this about Alice Paul:

History has known dedicated souls from the beginning, men and women whose every waking moment is devoted to an impersonal end, leaders of a "cause" who are ready at any moment quite simply to die for it. But is it rare to find in one human being this passion for service and sacrifice combined first with the shrewd calculating mind of a born political leader, and second with the ruthless driving force, sure judgment and phenomenal grasp of detail that characterize a great entrepreneur.

Alice Paul died on July 9, 1977, in Moorestown, New Jersey, just a few miles from her birthplace and family home. Her life demonstrates that one person can make a difference. Through the continuing work of an institute that bears her name, her legacy lives on, inspiring those who continue to work for social justice.

Mettle. Metal. Meddle for a Medal. What value or principle matters enough to you to summon up your Resistance, your Strength, your Steel? It may not be a prison sentence or a hunger strike that tempers you. It may be the struggle to be a good mother, to remain sober, to give support to a friend in need. Whatever it be, step into the work, feel your Substance.

May we see the gates of Mettle, and perhaps make a home there.

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