In the latest Journal of Women’s History, eminent biographer Susan Ware reflects on the biography that got away after a year of full-time research in “The Book I Couldn’t Write: Alice Paul and the Challenge of Feminist Biography:”
In theory Alice Paul [1885-1977] and I were a perfect match. She was one of America’s most intrepid, albeit polarizing, feminists, whose career spanned practically the entire twentieth century from suffrage militancy to second-wave feminism; no major biography of her had ever been completed. I had spent almost my entire career as a women’s historian writing about the fortunes of feminism through the lens of feminist biography. As an independent scholar unencumbered by regular teaching responsibilities, I had the time and energy to put in the years of research that it would likely take to complete the project. An added bonus: Paul’s papers were at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, practically across the street from where I live.
So, what was the problem?
After almost a year of sustained research, I finally had to admit that Alice Paul did not speak to me as a subject. In a profound failure of my historical imagination, I found myself at a total loss when searching for an overarching theme or hypothesis to make her life story compelling and relevant to contemporary readers. In other words, that spark of connection just wasn’t there. And yet lurking in my decision to abandon the project were questions beyond my personal failure to make the topic come alive. How can you write a feminist biography when your subject has left no trail of breadcrumbs (as a friend called them) to recreate any kind of interior or personal life? How do you make fifty years of laying the groundwork for [the Equal Rights Amendment] that ultimately failed seem accessible and interesting to readers? More fundamentally, what if some lives are not in fact suited to a full-bore, cradle-to-grave biography in the first place? I offer my story as Alice Paul’s would-be biographer to shed light both on the process of doing feminist biography and on why Alice Paul remains such a complicated, indeed elusive biographical subject.
At the heart of Ware’s frustration with Paul is the fact that she was all business, and never developed much of a personal or interior life that’s accessible to biographers and historians. This strikes me as a curiously modern interest, as someone engaged in writing a life about an eighteenth-century woman whose interior life I can never know. Go read all of Ware’s article–to the premodern historian, it seems like she has a weath of primary sources (hundreds of file boxes of papers!), forests of personal letters (even if that personal correspondance doesn’t offer much insight into her inner life), and even a “six-hundred page interview transcript of two marathon sessions in November 1972 and May 1973!”
Yet even then Alice Paul held back, deliberately and consistently refusing to supply any detailed personal information or observations, even when prodded by Fry. For example, when Fry asked about her father’s death when she was sixteen, Paul claimed that she was too young for it to have been much of a blow and that life just went on. Then she interjected, tellingly, “None of this is of any importance, but I only tell you because you asked me.” When it came to her organizational work, Paul showed a persistent tendency to refrain from saying negative things about other women, even arch rivals like Carrie Chapman Catt: “I don’t like to have attacks on anybody going down in history.” Or as she said to Fry at another point, “If I ever say a single word critical of anybody, leave it out, will you, because I am only saying it for you.” Luckily many of these asides did survive in the final edit, but it is clear that Alice Paul was censoring herself throughout the sessions, rarely letting her feelings come through. Still, the oral history remains indispensable to unlocking her inscrutable character, as well as critical for connecting the suffrage and ERA periods of her life, both essential tasks for the biographer.
Scholars are free to write the books they want to write–and of course Ware was undoubtedly right to abandon Alice Paul because Ware wasn’t going to be able to write her life the way she wanted to. (She was brave, too, to walk away from a year’s work.) But Ware’s objections to Paul as a biographical subject pose a real challenge to biographers and historians who write about subjects who lived before the nineteenth century, and especially premodern women subjects, whose paper trails are awfully scant by comparison to modern women and to premodern, literate, and elite men.
Part of my problem with Ware’s claims in this terrific article–and I strongly urge you to read the whole thing, because of the tremendous insight she offers about Paul, her archive, and the biographer’s craft–is her definition of a feminist biography:
One of the hallmarks of recent feminist biography has been the foregrounding of the interplay between the personal and the political in constructing narratives of individual women’s lives. Starting in the 1970s and picking up steam in the 1980s and 1990s, feminist biographers helped to reshape the field of biography as a whole by showing the benefits of an interpretation of a life that did not focus exclusively on public achievements and events but also took into account the daily rhythms and patterns of personal lives—family responsibilities, relationships, finances, living arrangements, and so forth. This approach was especially relevant for understanding the contours of women’s lives, shaped as they were by the need to navigate and engage conventional gender roles, but it proved fruitful for biographies of men as well.
But what if a person’s life was in fact her work? Ware is very convincing about Paul’s overwhelming commitment to the cause of suffrage, to the National Women’s Party which she founded, and to the passage of the ERA, and she writes movingly about the price Paul paid for not cultivating warmer personal relationships with younger friends and family members and not planning (practically or financially) for her retirement and declining years. She was pretty much isolated and robbed by an opportunistic nephew, dying in a Quaker nursing home in 1977 after two debilitating strokes. But based on Ware’s portrait of Paul until her strokes, this seems like exactly the kind of ending that she was aiming for–except for the being robbed part, but she didn’t have all that much of an estate to begin with. A person who is “absolutely concentrated on now,” in the words of her compatriot in suffrage Inez Haynes Irwin, doesn’t plan for retirement, write a will, make a trust, or donate her papers and her estate to make a house museum and archive.
Is it really possible to argue that Alice Paul’s life can’t be understood as a feminist biography because she chose not to have (or reveal) a personal life or to record her interior life for our degustation? Is the work really not enough? Do we have to write histories only of relateablepeople? Quite frankly, Ware herself offers up all of the key elements of a great story: drama (in that Paul was a controversial figure), a hero (Paul herself), and villains galore (the nephew, various policians from the Progressive Era through the Nixon years who opposed suffrage and the ERA). I know more than a few women who have made choices in their personal lives that male politicians and ambitious professionals never have to make–they have wives to take care of all of those details. Alice Paul had servants, who probably didn’t write their own memoirs or leave their papers to the Schlesinger Library.
Premodern scholars are familiar with the challenges of bringing to life subjects who aren’t so eloquent–by necessity, for the most part–about their interior lives. Our methodology boils down to leaving no stone unturned, no source unmined, no scrap of relevant material unexamined. Ware herself notes that Paul was enormously controversial, and that one way of exploring her character would be to let her critics have the last word:
And yet the potential Alice Paul biographer will likely throw up her hands in despair. There are already so many massive archives to master: the entire suffrage collection at the Library of Congress, the 179 reels of NWP microfilm, the League of Nations documentation in Geneva, the multiple collections at the Schlesinger Library, to name just the most obvious. Is it really feasible to double or quadruple the research agenda to look for what truly might be needles in a haystack—the rare glimpses of Alice Paul the person—to augment and complement our understanding of Alice Paul the feminist activist? The fear, or trap, is that her character would remain just as elusive as ever, and the book project would drag on indefinitely. The ghost not just of Alice Paul but of Amelia Fry, who died in 2009 without completing the biography of Paul she began in the 1970s, haunts the landscape.
What about digitization–hasn’t that made at least some of this material available and searchable in pretty short order? (If not, then what about writing a grant to digitize these feminist archives?) But in the end, the premodern scholar will probably say “harumph to your complaints about your masses of evidence. Start reading!” It seems awfully traditional and not at all feminist to expect to write a biography based only on a subject’s letters and personal papers. Are subjects really their own best and most thorough judges or critics? I really doubt it. Ware continues:
Behind all these doubts lies the lurking suspicion that perhaps certain historical figures are not in fact good fits for biography. That is, aspects and specific moments of individual lives may be significant and compelling on their own but there may not be enough of a through-story or narrative arc to warrant surveys of the entire lives.
But what biography ever written really gives equal time to each and every year of a subject’s life? (“At age three, Isaac Newton was a thriving toddler who particularly enjoyed summer days for the long walks he took with his family and the availability of fresh stone fruit.”) All biographers compress years or even decades into a single chapter–usually the happiest days of a subject’s life, because there is relatively so little conflict to write about. At the same time, they can write chapters sometimes on just a year or two, or on a week, or on a particularly stimulating exchange of letters. It seems to me that that’s part of the judgment that good writers and storytellers must exercise.
Read Ware’s whole article–I believe she makes a very strong case that Alice Paul created (through all kinds of neglect) just the kind of archive she wanted, one that will largely dictate the kind of biography that she’ll get. But, isn’t that just what you’d expect from Alice Paul, who didn’t want “attacks on anybody going down in history?” Evidence of internal dissent would have betrayed the feminist cause, the cause to which she had devoted her entire life, and one that she knew had to hold together in order for it to succeed. This is an old woman’s worry, not the worry of the hunger-striking, vindictively jailed Alice Paul of the 1910s. Sometimes our subjects are in fact pretty poor judges of their own lives.
She outlived Carrie Chapman Catt and all her older rivals, and even most of her generational peers of young suffragists. She even lived to know another generation of determined feminists and a resurgent cultural right in the 1960s and 1970s. It seems like that’s a life worth writing about, and a life worth examining on its own terms.