Early in "Suffs," the much-anticipated musical about the women’s suffragist movement now playing in Manhattan’s Public Theater, firebrand Alice Paul bursts upon the scene, overflowing with plans.
She wants to lead an unprecedented women’s march on Washington! She wants a federal amendment to give women the right to vote! Take it slow, the old guard says. Alice the upstart just rolls her eyes.
“Why does no one understand what I have planned?” our impatient heroine sings.
“I’ll be the one to finish the fight!”
In real life and in the play, South Jersey’s own Alice Paul didn’t get to finish her fight. No one else has, either. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which Paul helped to write, has yet to become reality. The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote and which she was a leader in the fight for, was to Paul just a means to her true goal — equality for women under the law. She spent the rest of her life working for that until she died in 1977 at age 92 in a Moorestown, New Jersey, nursing home. She is buried in Cinnaminson, New Jersey.
But Paul and the women who fought with her did achieve major legal and social change — not only for women, but in the ways political activism would be waged by many other activists going forward.
In fact, Paul and her fellow suffragists might just be the most important Americans you’ve never heard of.
And yet these women inspired playwright and performer Shaina Taub, who plays Paul, to create a major production that opened in the same theater where "Hamilton" got its start. The show was long ago sold out for its entire until-end-of-May run.
“While the show is closing at The Public after a triumphant run here on May 29th,” said a Public Theatre representative, “we value our collaboration with the commercial producers for this production who hope to usher the show forward beyond this run.”
If that happens, Paul may finally take her place among our history’s more familiar figures.
Not that she would have sought the recognition.
Even the Alice Paul Institute, located in the suffragist’s Mount Laurel historic homestead in New Jersey, is not dedicated as an homage to its namesake.
“We don’t see our work as being a shrine to Alice Paul,” said Rachael Glashan Rupisan, assistant executive director. “We don’t think that’s what she would want.”
Instead the institute has long been dedicated to help carry out Paul’s legacy, including nurturing girls and young women to become leaders in their own right and in their own way.
Born Jan. 11, 1885, she was the first of four children born to William Paul, a president of the Burlington County Trust Company, and Tacie Paul, who had to drop out of college after she wed, because . married women at the time couldn’t attend college. As a parent, she made sure her children completed their education.
The Paul children were raised with strong Quaker values, including equality between men and women. Alice, a strong student, attended Swarthmore College. After graduation, she pursued social work, which took her to New York City and then England.
In England , she made the life-altering acquaintance of the Pankhursts, mother-and-daughter radical suffragists. With them and their comrades, Paul became an activist for the cause, too, getting imprisoned, going on hunger strikes, being force-fed.
When she returned to the United States, there would be no stopping her.
“She was truly committed to the cause of women’s equality,” said Mary Walton, author of the biography "A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot." “Voting was a step along the way.”
Paul wasn’t an obvious leader. She was reserved and didn’t have much of a sense of humor, said Walton, a former Inquirer staff writer. Nor did she have patience with people less committed to the cause.
Her genius was working behind the scenes.
“She was a brilliant strategist,” Walton said. “People recognized that no one would do or could do what she was doing. People used that word ‘charisma’. She was charismatic.”
She was the master organizer, enlisting some of her comrades to be the movement’s more public figures. In "Suffs," that is Inez Milholland, the beautiful, brilliant socialite suffragist, played by "Hamilton" alumna Phillipa Soo. In real life, Milholland, a lawyer by profession who rode a white horse in the famous women’s march, defied opponents’ stereotype of suffragists as uncomely females who couldn’t “get a man.”
When it came to gender equality, Paul was a radical — and a single-minded one. She never married or had children. Her life was the cause. When she’d had it with the suffrage movement’s more conservative leadership, and they had become critical of her extreme tactics, she formed her own organization — the National Woman’s Party.
“She recognized in America, it’s all about the law,” said Lucy Beard, Alice Paul Institute project consultant and former executive director. “We don’t have a common religion. We don’t have a common ethnicity, a common anything. What we have that makes us a nation is our laws, and it in the Constitution. That’s where change will happen.”
Decades later, Paul’s laser-like focus of the ERA drew criticism from women who thought she should have been actively supporting other issues, like equal pay and child care.
“She would tell people they were getting themselves sidetracked by other issues and should focus on the big picture,” said Beard.
At the time of Paul’s death, the ERA was closer than ever to ratification.
“She was literally lobbying from a wheelchair in a nursing home in Moorestown,” Beard said. She would exhort visitors to lobby their members of Congress. “You didn’t get out of there until you promised her you’d make that call.”
Race also plays a complex role in the history of these early feminists, including Paul, and some of that is reflected in "Suffs," voiced especially by the Black journalist and suffragist Ida B. Wells. Some historians argue that Paul’s singular devotion to the eventual passage of the ERA meant she was reluctant to champion the public participation of Black women — who were crucial players in the suffrage movement — for fear of alienating potential allies.
Both the institute and the musical try to avoid sugarcoating Paul’s actions. “She did incredible work as a flawed human being, and that means we can, too,” said Alyssa Hunt, API’s program director.
A key part of the institute’s mission is to help young people — girls as well youngsters who identify as nonbinary and transgender — discover and appreciate their own leadership qualities,” according to assistant executive director Rupisan.
Like Paul, they see a lot of needed change in their world.
“They’re looking for tools to navigate this very polarized society right now, and they have very strong opinions on how we should move forward,” Rupisan said. “We’re trying to provide the tools for them to be able to say, ‘These are what my values are, and this is how I stand strong in them.’ ”
Shaina Taub said one of her goals in creating "Suffs" was opening young minds and hearts.
“By telling suffrage stories, I hope to inspire the next generation to both dig up the hidden histories of our country and to take action themselves for progress and equality,” she said.
“I want a new generation of girls and kids to grow up playing Inez Milholland and Ida B. Wells and Alice Paul in their school play and getting excited about history, art, and activism in the process.”
Holly Gould, Taub’s standby in the "Suffs" role of Alice Paul, said she’s really enjoyed the kids who come to the Public Theater’s stage door after performances. They seem jazzed by what they’ve learned.
“They are like, ‘I didn’t know this happened and I feel really fired about this thing.’ They look very excited,” Gould said. “They look very much like they’re going to go out and change the world.”
Girls changing the world? Alice Paul would have liked that.
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