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Interview with Author Mary Walton
The National Organization for Women (NOW) names its top-priority issues as reproductive justice, violence against women, constitutional equality, promoting diversity and ending racism, lesbian rights, and economic justice. Women today are blessed to have to fight for such things. Several decades ago, women had to fight bitterly just to gain the right to vote. Women's rights organizations of the late 1800s and early 1900s usually petitioned state governments to enfranchise women, occasionally succeeded. In the 1910s, Alice Paul, a New Jersey feminist, was tired of the ineffectual state-by-state suffrage campaigns and broke away from the pack. She created her the National Woman's Party (NWP), her own suffrage association, and used militant tactics to get publicity, following in the footsteps of her militant British mentors, the Pankhursts. She set up the silent sentinels, groups of women that stood at the White House with banners and signs petitioning President Woodrow Wilson to enfranchise women. After the sentinels endured almost daily attacks from the public, continual arrests and incarcerations, and horrific jail treatment, the Nineteenth Amendment was passed and women across the nation could vote. I had the honor of interviewing Mary Walton, author of the book A Woman's Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot, all about the fight for the vote and the NWP's role in it.
Q: How did you first get into writing?
MW: For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a reporter. My role model was Brenda Starr, the comic strip heroine who traveled the world in pursuit of stories. Her life was filled with adventure, romance and fabulous clothes. The reality was something different. I was hired in the late 60s by the Charleston [WV] Gazette where I covered night city cops and the small upriver towns that constituted the city’s suburbs. Forty years ago women were still a rare species outside of the woman’s section and I was lucky to get the job. Soon I evolved into the paper’s environmental reporter.
Q: Your other two books are about very different topics - the 1996 Ford Taurus and the Deming Management Method. What inspired such a radical subject change?
MW: Most reporters are adept at quickly mastering different sets of facts, circumstances and newsmakers. It’s virtually a job requirement. And it’s tremendously challenging to be able to do that on a grand scale, as when writing a book. The common denominator to all that I write is people and their stories. Even CAR, which described the design and manufacture of a car, was about the people whose lives became intertwined with the Taurus. But afterward, I had very little desire to return to that subject. When an editor suggested a book on Alice Paul and the final years of the suffrage movement, and I realized that the story line was a David-and-Goliath tale of good vs. less good, the opportunity to pursue it was irresistible.
Q: How did you go about doing research for A Woman’s Crusade?
MW: I compare historical research to investigative reporting, where the sources are documents rather than people. In short, no one tells you anything. You have to dig it out. I was extremely fortunate in living near two rich sources of material. Alice Paul was from Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, not far from Ocean Grove where I live, and her home has become a feminist center with a staff that offered unflagging support. Rutgers University, also close by, has the records of Paul’s National Woman’s Party on easily accessible microfilm, plus an extensive research library. I also had a research grant from the Schlesinger Library at Harvard where Paul’s papers are housed.
Q: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
MW: I believe wholeheartedly in women’s rights but my profession as a journalist meant that I could never take an advocacy position. Within the profession, however, I and others were vigilant in seeking parity for women. And I did stories about women seeking social justice, including two that cost prominent men their positions when I uncovered evidence of sexual harassment. Stories like this did not get done before women became reporters.
Q: Do you feel that it was directly due to the silent sentinels' efforts that the Nineteenth Amendment was passed ?
MW: It was going to pass sooner or later. I believe it would not have passed in time for women to vote in 1920 had it not been for Paul's campaign. Including not only the silent sentinels, but her masterful ratification campaign, overlooked by most historians.
Q: If you had lived during Alice Paul’s time, do you think you would have joined the NWP and picketed?
MW: I asked myself this question many times as I wrote of the brave women who picketed, were jailed, went on hunger strikes and were force fed, often defying their families. I like to think so.