I recently read a book about one of the most underappreciated yet major contributors to American feminism in U.S. history, Alice Paul. It is a shame so few Americans know who Alice Paul is. She was a passionate feminist activist, one who went to extremes in her struggle to obtain women’s equality. Paul endured horrible treatment by the
Written by Amy E. Butler, Two Paths to Equality chronicles the different approaches two feminist leaders, Alice Paul and Ethel M. Smith, took to achieving women’s equality. Paul demanded a constitutional amendment securing quality for women in the form of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), while Smith felt the ERA targeted women from a privileged background and did not adequately address the needs of poor and working class women. This book is based on the fascinating concept that first wave feminists, while having similar goals, did not always agree on the means through which they could be achieved.
After a discussion of the background of these two women,
“If today’s focus is on building recognition of the varieties of women’s experiences, then equal rights as a basis of legislative and legal change is not the way” (113).
Although I enjoyed her book, especially the parts discussing how Paul and Smith came to prominence, I do not agree with her conclusions. I disagree with one of her fundamental arguments:
“Equality remains a male-defined concept. It assumes that all people are similarly situated, and it is not flexible enough to account for individual differences according to gender, class or race. Equal rights is a social construct, not just a form of jurisprudence, that upholds a universal standard of equality that typically excludes the interest of some groups to the interests of others” (112-113).
I believe the desire for an ERA should remain a feminist priority, as it is one of the best ways to ensure legal equality between women and men. Without an ERA in our constitution, women will continue to face discrimination and treatment as second class citizens. The ERA is as relevant now as it was in 1921 and women deserve its passage. I guess that makes me a feminist cut from the same cloth as Alice Paul.
If you haven’t done so, be sure to see Iron Jawed Angels. Viewing this film will give you new understanding of Alice Paul, a woman believed to be the first activist in our country to protest using methods of civil disobedience. It would be a shame for us feminists to allow her sacrifices for women in our country to go unremembered.