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. Continue Reading »