Women’s History Month: Celebrating freedom

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

In honor of Women’s History Month, the First Amendment Center has selected four women whose actions and accomplishments demonstrate the importance of our First Amendment rights.

“If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., 1929.

Anne Hutchinson was a 17th-century Puritan. Alice Paul fought for a woman’s right to vote. Ida B. Wells, born into slavery, became a journalist and a crusader against violent oppression. Mary Beth Tinker, at just 13 years old, protested the Vietnam War.

These women came from very diverse circumstances, but they shared at least one trait beyond their sex: They all fought for ideas that their contemporaries considered radical or even dangerous. In return, they were harassed and threatened, and in the case of Paul, even imprisoned.

History treats these women more kindly than their contemporaries did. Their determination to fight for their beliefs and for their rights inspires us never to take our freedoms for granted.

Anne Hutchinson
In 1634, Anne Hutchinson, her husband, William, and their many children followed their Puritan minister, John Cotton, to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans in Massachusetts had left England to pursue their own religious beliefs, but they did not conceive of a separation of church and state as Americans do today. Puritanism was the Colony’s established religion. In this context — and against the backdrop of the Colony’s struggles with England as well as the indigenous people — religious dissent was a form of sedition and was punishable by law.

Soon after settling in Boston, Hutchinson began attracting followers to her own interpretation of Puritan theology, which stressed inward manifestation of spiritual grace. As her influence grew, the Colony’s leadership began to see her as a threat, and in 1637, Hutchinson was tried before the General Court of Massachusetts Bay for “traducing the ministers and their ministry.” At trial, she stated, “As I understand it, laws, commands, rules, and edicts are for those who have not the light which makes plain the pathway.” She also claimed that she would be delivered, while those trying her would be ruined. These words must have seemed threatening indeed to the leaders of a society in which religious and political authority blurred into one.

The General Court found Hutchinson guilty. A subsequent trial before Boston’s church and clergy resulted in her formal excommunication. Even her minister, John Cotton, turned on her, proclaiming, “Your opinions fret like a gangrene and spread like a leprosy, and will eat out the very bowels of religion.”

As punishment, the court banished Hutchinson from Massachusetts. She and her family helped to found Portsmouth, in what is now Rhode Island. After her husband’s death a few years later, she settled on Long Island Sound with her younger children. In 1643, she died, with her servants and all but one of the children, in an Indian attack. Some interpreted her violent death as God’s judgment on her heresy.

Alice Paul
Less than 100 years ago, women picketing outside the White House for the right to vote were deemed “militants.” Today, women’s suffrage is an undeniable right, and picketing outside the White House is a time-honored tradition, practiced by protesters all along the political spectrum. Alice Paul, taking full advantage of her First Amendment rights of assembly and petition, helped to make both these realities possible.

Paul rejected state-by-state legislation granting women the vote. As a suffragist leader, she supported a federal amendment to the U.S. Constitution. To that end, she organized lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., and planned the unprecedented march of 5,000 women on the nation’s capital during President Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 inauguration.

Paul and fellow suffragist Lucy Burns, at odds with the tactics of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, left to form a new organization. In 1917, their group, the National Woman’s Party, became the first to picket the White House. The picketers called themselves the “Silent Sentinels” and carried signs reading, “Mr. President, What Will You Do for Woman’s Suffrage?” and “How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?”

Some, including the leaders of other suffrage organizations, accused the picketing women of disloyalty for protesting against President Wilson as the country headed into World War I. The women countered that the country was fighting for democracy abroad while denying the vote to its own citizens.

After several months, police started arresting the protesters, including Paul, for “obstructing sidewalk traffic.” During her imprisonment, Paul was placed in solitary confinement and later in a psychiatric ward, and was threatened with transfer to an insane asylum. When she and others staged hunger strikes, prison doctors force-fed them.

“I was interviewed by the prison psychiatrists, and I realized I was only one signature away from being committed to an insane asylum,” Paul said of her time in the psychiatric ward. “They kept asking me about President Wilson. They wanted to know if I regarded him as a personal enemy. … I believe I have never in my life before feared anything or any human being, but I confess I was afraid of Dr. Gannon, the jail physician. I dreaded the hour of his visit.”

Paul spent five weeks in jail.

The suffragists, as we know, prevailed. In January 1918, Wilson announced his support for the amendment. In August 1920, with ratification by the requisite number of states, it became the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Some historians contend that Paul’s tactics served the cause by making mainstream suffragists appear more reasonable.

Paul continued to fight for women’s rights, both at home and abroad. She wrote the original text for the Equal Rights Amendment, first submitted to Congress in 1923. She also helped found the World Woman’s Party, which successfully supported inclusion of women’s rights in the preamble to the U.N. Charter. But it was her work to secure the vote for women that Paul valued most, referring to it a few months before she died in 1977 as the “most useful thing I ever did.”

Ida B. Wells
Born a slave in Mississippi in 1862, Ida B. Wells went on to become an outspoken journalist and anti-lynching crusader.

Wells began writing part time while working as a public school teacher in Memphis, Tenn. Using the pen name Iola, Wells swiftly became known within her profession and was dubbed the “Princess of the Press.” In 1889, she bought a one-third interest in the local Free Speech and Headlight. “Since the appetite grows for what it feeds on,” Wells later said, “the desire came to own a paper.”

True to the paper’s name, Wells published the world as she saw it, and faced the consequences with determination. When she lost her job as a teacher after writing a story that criticized the school system, she threw herself into the paper, traveling the region to increase subscriptions. When she heard that white newspaper sellers were selling white-run papers to illiterate blacks who requested the Free Speech — they would have others read the paper to them — she printed the Free Speech on pink paper so that the buyers could tell the difference. She turned the Free Speech into a self-sufficient paper.

Wells began to write extensively about lynchings. Her investigations found that many followed accusations that black men had raped white women. Her editorial suggesting that white women could be attracted to black men incensed white racists. While she was out of town, her paper’s office was destroyed, and she was threatened with death if she returned to the South.

Wells did not return. But despite whatever fear she may have felt — she started to keep a gun in her desk — she refused to stop reporting and publishing. She wrote extensively about lynching for the New York Age, in which she obtained a quarter interest in return for the Free Speech’s subscription list. Her first long publication was a 25-page pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

Wells continued throughout her life to fight against lynching and racism. She became a prominent lecturer in the United States and abroad. Her career eventually brought her to Chicago, where she married Ferdinand Barnett, founder of the city’s first African-American newspaper. Together they funded legal assistance for black prisoners and paid for lynching investigations. Wells’ political activities included lobbying, elections work and support for women’s suffrage. (Told to walk in the back of the march Alice Paul had organized during President Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 inauguration — see above — she refused, stepping into the all-white Chicago delegation from the sidewalk.)

But Wells never stopped writing. She was working on her autobiography when she died, at the age of 68.

Mary Beth Tinker
Mary Beth Tinker was only 13 years old when she and a handful of other teenagers, including her brother John, decided to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. Little did she know that she would end up a petitioner before the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark free-speech case.

“So then we just planned this little thing of wearing these armbands to school,” Tinker said in the book The Courage of Their Convictions. “We didn’t think it was going to be that big of a deal.”

Tinker came from a politically active family. Both parents had participated in civil rights actions. Her father, formerly a Methodist minister, was a peace educator for the American Friends Service Committee.

Tinker wore the armband to her classes on a Thursday morning just before Christmas 1965. Later in the day, the principal called her to his office. He and the school’s counselor told her that unless she took off the armband, the school would suspend her. (In response to rumors, school officials had banned the wearing of armbands two days earlier.) Tinker took it off, but was suspended anyway. Her friend Chris Eckhardt, a sophomore at a different school, also was sent home that day, and the next day three more students, including her brother John, were suspended from their schools. In all, five children were punished for donning black armbands. They stayed out of school until after New Year’s Day.

The incident became a high-profile controversy in Des Moines. Harassment of the Tinker family began.

“People threw red paint at our house, and we got lots of calls. We got all kinds of threats to our family, even death threats. They even threatened my little brothers and sisters, which was really sick. People called our house on Christmas Eve and said the house would be blown up by morning. … One night [a radio talk-show host in Des Moines] said that if anyone wanted to use a shotgun on my father, he would pay for the court costs if anything happened,” Tinker said in the book.

“I was leaving for school one morning, on my way out the door, and the phone rang and I picked it up. This woman said, Is this Mary Tinker? And I said yes. And she said, I’m going to kill you!”

The students and their families challenged the school district’s response to their protest, but the district stood firm, claiming it had the authority to prevent disturbances in the schools. The ACLU took on the case, which wound its way through the courts. In February 1969 the Supreme Court handed down a 7-2 decision that protected the students’ right to protest as they had. The students’ expression of their opinions with armbands, which caused no disruption in class or to other students, involved “direct, primary First Amendment rights akin to ‘pure speech,’ ” the Court said.

Subsequent Supreme Court decisions have established schools’ authority to regulate student expression in various circumstances. The Court has found, for example, that school officials may oversee and, within limits, censor newspapers published under their schools’ auspices. But the decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District remains a bulwark of students’ First Amendment rights. As the Court’s majority opinion in the case famously states, students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The view from today
It is hard now to imagine how radical these four women seemed to many of their contemporaries. Would many Americans today find it radical to picket the White House in support of a woman’s right to vote? In retrospect, these women are courageous, not threatening. Even when certain ideas remain controversial — many still reject Tinker’s stance on the Vietnam War — history’s perspective renders their expression important. This is worth remembering as the nation faces its current controversies: as we protest for and against the war in Iraq, as we debate religion in public life, as we press our political representatives to act on our behalf on a long list of social, economic and political issues. We may not know which ideas history will vindicate and which it will discredit. On some issues there will never be consensus. But history has shown that without First Amendment rights, positive change would become almost impossible. They are rights worth fighting for, and Anne Hutchinson, Alice Paul, Ida B. Wells and Mary Beth Tinker, each in her own way, did.

Lisa Robbins has a master of arts in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She is a free-lance writer, editor and researcher.