Friday, August 18, 2006

Book Review: Two Paths to Equality

Alice Paul and the Struggle for the ERA

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 U.S. government in her campaign for women’s voting rights, including imprisonment and forced feeding in response to her self imposed hunger strike. These commitments should not be forgotten. Although the book I just read by Amy E. Butler, Two Paths to Equality: Alice Paul and Ethel M. Smith in the ERA Debate 1921-1923, was interesting and provided me with new insight of Paul’s struggle to pass the ERA, I found it was not one of the best ways to learn about Paul contributions. The best ways to familiarize yourself with her contributions to feminism is to see the film, Iron Jawed Angels. The amazing Hillary Swank plays Paul, portraying her accurately and with great respect as a feminist visionary and committed activist.

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, Butler gets to the heart of an issue that has divided feminists until this day: whether or not working within the existing political structure can lead to the securing of equal rights for women. Butler ultimately sides with Smith in this debate, concluding her book with these words,

“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.

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