OTI Online
win/spring 1985

In Memory of Two Alices
by Beverly Lowy

They had a lot in common, those two women, Alice Paul and Alice Neel. Both were born in January: Paul on January 11. 1885; Neel on January 28, 1900. They lived long, hard, unconventional and productive lives, and remained mentally acute until they died. Their bodies failed them but their spirits remained strong and directed. The two Alices had another thing in common: neither fully achieved the recognition her feats deserved.

When we speak of women's suffrage, the names that come most readily to mind are Anthony, Catt, Stanton, Woodhull. Too many people, including feminists, ask, "Who is Alice Paul?"

Alice Paul was, quite literally, the mother of the E.R.A. A tireless, innovative fighter for women's rights, a woman who risked her life for the cause of suffrage, she also earned degrees in both law and social work. Politically active, she threw herself into street demonstrations; and, to perfect her techniques, she studied strategy under the militant feminist Emmeline Pankhurst.

In 1913, Paul organized what may have been the first march on Washington, leading 5,000 women in a suffrage demonstration. She formed the National Woman's Party to focus on passing a federal suffrage amendment rather than trust the time-consuming - and often ineffectual - method of having states pass the law individually - a strategy that the current Republican administration still feels is politically sound.

Alice Paul fearlessly used every method she had been taught - and many that she devised herself - in lobbying, building coalitions, holding silent vigils outside the White House, leading mass marches and deliberately obstructing traffic - all to achieve rights for women. She was arrested repeatedly, subjected to police brutality and jailed. Even in jail she showed her activism by going on hunger strikes. She fought furiously against being force-fed which was done through the dangerous and painful device of nasal tubing. At one point she resisted so fiercely that prison authorities confined her to a psychopathic ward where she was kept incommunicado for a week, until the National Woman's Party found out where she was and got her released. She was often placed in solitary confinement because she encouraged the other prisoners to rebel.

When women finally got the vote in 1920, Alice Paul knew the fight had only just begun and that women's equality was a long way from being achieved. She immediately began writing the Equal Rights Amendment, which was endorsed by the National Woman's Party in 1923 and introduced that same year - by the Republican Party! For nearly 50 years afterwards, Paul made sure the E.R.A. was introduced annually into Congress.

She fought all her life until her physical strength was gone. Her last days were spent in a nursing home, sick, lonely and helpless. The impotence she must have felt is heartbreaking to contemplate. She was once again in jail - this time with no hope of rescue.

The nurses considered her a difficult patient. She probably was. She had spent her whole life being difficult. She, who had gone past national boundaries to found the World Woman's Party in 1938, and was responsible, through the Party delegates, for the mention of women's rights in the preamble of the United Nations' Charter, now had her boundaries confined to a room in a nursing home.

Alice Paul died on July 9, 1977. It is a sad note that after a life devoted to the cause of women's freedom, she was denied the greatest reward - seeing her life's work pass into law.

Alice Neel was another maverick who refused to do what the world expected. As a result, she didn't receive the awards and acclaim she deserved until she was in her 70s. Her strong, realistic portraits were anything but popular at a time when abstraction and Abstract Expressionism dominated the art world. Her paintings were tough, often unflattering, and rarely bought by those she had chosen as subjects.

Her life-style was as unconventional as her paintings. Her relationships with men were unhappy; she had many lovers who treated her badly, one of whom destroyed her canvasses and clothes in a jealous rage. She had two daughters by an early marriage - one was taken from her by her husband, the other died of diphtheria; two sons were born out of-wedlock by different fathers, each of whom left her after the birth of the child. Through all of this. Neel continued to paint, living a life of obscurity and hardship, earning enough from the WPA Easel Project to barely support herself and her sons.

It was the rising, feminist consciousness of the late '60s, which sought out deserving women artists who had been eclipsed by the male art world, that began to give Neel the recognition she had been denied. At a time of life when many think in terms of retirement, her awards and accolades were just beginning.

I twice met Alice Neel. The first time was in 1982 at the art exhibit of the Academy/Institute of Arts and Letters. She laughed when we asked her to pose for a photo standing next to one of her paintings. "Are you sure you want me to?" she asked. It was a little incongruous, the small frail woman against a large, bold, nearly raw painting. The painting must have reflected her soul - it had no obvious relationship to the white-haired, grandmotherly body that stood beside it. Of course, one must remember that this sweet-faced "grandmother" had shocked the art world when, at 81, she did a self-portrait which was exhibited at a special fundraiser. She portrayed herself sitting in an armchair naked - wearing nothing but her eyeglasses. She attended the fundraiser well wrapped-up. and didn't blink an eye at the reactions.

The second time I met Alice Neel was in October. 1983 when she received a special Avon/COCOA Pioneer Woman award. She appeared much frailer than she had the previous year and had a hard time walking to the podium. No one realized that she was suffering from the cancer that would kill her almost exactly a year later. She died October 13, 1984.

Alice Neel said of herself: "My life was pure women's lib in a way. I had a very hard life, and I paid the price for it, but I did as I wanted."

So, here's a toast to two Alices: courageous, difficult, unconventional. Each defied society and suffered for it, but always remained true to herself and her ideals. And each in her own way carved a path through the forest, making the way a little easier for those who follow them.

Beverly Lowy (For information on Alice Paul, we wish to thank the National Woman's Party and Robin Morgan for her excellent piece. "Alice Paul. Mother of the ERA." Ms. Magazine. 10/77.)

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