By Leslie Mulford Denis. Oxford Southern, 2022. 272 pages. $19.95/paperback; $9.99/eBook.
In our twenty-first-century world, it is hard to imagine life over 100 years ago during the Progressive Era, but that is the world we enter in this detailed volume about the life of two Quaker cousins: one who sacrificed dearly and had an enduring impact on women everywhere, and one who lived a quiet life, hemmed in by dictates of her conservative Quaker family in Riverton, N.J.
The story follows these revolutionary yet privileged “New Women” of the twentieth century, Alice Paul and Susanna Parry, cousins who were undoubtedly fond of each other and came of age at the turn of the century. Through the experiences of their early days at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, extensive European travels, work in the settlement houses in New York and England, and their subsequent education at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in England, we see them embark on very different paths that continued throughout the remainder of their lives.
The story of these two cousins is told by the author, a descendant, through letters she inherited from her own contemporary cousin. The tattered box of forgotten letters was discovered in the recesses of the attic that had once been the family home of the spinster Parry sisters, Susanna and Beulah. Through the echo of a time long ago, the story of Susanna and her family, along with the exploits of her infamous cousin Alice, are revealed in the writings penned—many by Susanna herself—beginning in the early 1900s when both cousins began their college careers. The author describes in illuminating detail the life and history of that time while weaving in the story of Susanna’s and Alice’s life journeys, which overlap through their family ties but whose trajectories take off in very different directions.
While Alice found her calling as a radical suffragette who challenged the politics and politicians of the day, changing the world, Susanna quietly rebelled but was ultimately thwarted in a forbidden love for the college roommate she endearingly called “Wifie.” Brokenhearted, Susanna struggled through depression and later tuberculosis but ultimately found a way to carve out a life that included untold generosity and dedication to family and friends while remaining true to herself.
As a Quaker woman who came of age during the feminist days of Betty Friedan, I was humbled and awed as I learned about the concentrated study, hard-won victories, and personal suffering of the generations before me, and the single-minded dedication of Alice Paul who spent her entire life fighting for the freedoms and rights we women enjoy today. It was due to the courage and resolve of Alice Paul and her fellow suffragists, the “Silent Sentinels,” who picketed Woodrow Wilson’s White House and the Capitol, endured the rage of opposing crowds, and were jailed in atrocious prison conditions, that the Nineteenth Amendment was finally passed in June 1919 and ratified in August 1920. Thus women in this country were allowed to vote for the first time in the elections of 1920. Alice continued her fight throughout the rest of her long life, and although she authored the Equal Rights Amendment for Women and saw it passed by Congress in 1972, she never lived to see it ratified and subsequently defeated by its opponents when ratification failed by three states.
The story of these two Quaker cousins offers a rare glimpse into the history of a bygone age that produced some of the most important discoveries and hard-won rights that we blithely take for granted in present times. Through the lens of these two women’s lives, we have a chance to look back, learn, and remember how far we have come and recognize how far we still have to go.
Claire Salkowski is a member of Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Md., where she has been active and also attends the Northern Neck Worship Group from her creek home in Heathsville, Va. As an educator, administrator, mediator, and restorative circle practitioner, she worked both nationally and internationally and is currently semi-retired.