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The rebirth of a movement

Viewing an historic election from the hallowed grounds of Independence Mall to the grave of a crusader for women's rights.

Alice S. Paul grave
Dale Mezzacappa

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Dale Mezzacappa
Last night, Suzanne Gili Post took the train to Philadelphia from South Jersey with four co-workers from the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill and two of their sons, including hers, who is 14. They wanted to attend the rally on Independence Mall the last night before the election and got in line at 11th and Washington Streets, at least a mile and a half away. They got there around 5 p.m. and snaked toward the security entrance, meeting other people in the line and feeling the excitement.

“At 7:30, they told us it was full,” Post said. “They told us to go home.”

But she and her friends had other ideas. They decided to walk to Independence Hall and see how close they could get. With hundreds of others, they stood under the bell tower in Independence Park, blocked from the main action taking place on the other side of the hallowed building, where tens of thousands of people massed. It was fine. They couldn’t see, but they could hear everything.

And they could feel it.

“You could feel the exuberance, the joy,” she said. When the clock at the top of Independence Hall started pealing the hour at 9 p.m., President Obama was speaking. “It was perfect, really beautiful,” she said. “It struck me as an omen.”

She felt part of history, standing on the spot where the country’s founders, all men, pieced together the blueprint for what would become the world’s longest-lasting democracy. She could hear the voice of America’s first Black president, with an urgent eloquence unmatched in recent times, as he implored voters to elect our first female president. She could hear as Michelle Obama, a woman descended from slaves, took the stage as first lady. Between where Obama stood and where Post and her friends listened lies the site of the house where a woman named Oney Judge ran away from her slave master.

She heard the woman who hoped to become the country’s first female president, 227 years after Oney Judge’s master, George Washington, became the new nation’s first elected leader.

This ground is where, Hillary Clinton said, “representatives from 13 unruly colonies came together to launch the greatest experiment the world has ever seen.”

It is still an experiment, perhaps now in jeopardy.

“Make no mistake, our core values are being tested in this election. The real question for us is what kind of country we want to be and what kind of future we want to build for our children,” Clinton said.

“We love this country, we love what it stands for –not that we are blind to its flaws, its problems, its challenges. But I believe with all my heart that America’s best days are still ahead of us if we reach for them together. We choose to believe in a hopeful, inclusive, big-hearted America, an America where everyone has a place, everyone’s included, everyone has a chance to live up to their own God-given potential.”

A little girl gets hoisted onto the shoulders of her father near the podium as Clinton speaks, deliriously happy.

What would the people who made these grounds so hallowed, George Washington and the other founders, and women like Abigail Adams and Oney Judge, think of this scene?

All these imperfect humans, living in their time, making history, moving forward in fits and starts. Yet, the moment was perfect.

A chance encounter

I met Suzanne Gili Post on the afternoon of Election Day in Cinnaminson, N.J., which both of us had decided to visit at exactly the same time. We stood together before the simple gravestone of a Quaker woman named Alice Paul, thinking there was no better place to make a stop on this day.

Paul, born in Moorestown, educated at Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania, was another imperfect person. But her tactical and organizational brilliance was in large part responsible for the passage of the 19th Amendment 96 years ago, which gave women the vote. This was a crusade for Paul, who worked tirelessly for more than seven years to correct what to her was a grave injustice and insult to half the nation’s population. She used nonviolent tactics, civil disobedience, with suffragists picketing the White House. Their persistence even during wartime incited violence against the picketers but resulted in suffragists being jailed and tortured, not their tormentors.

I placed my little arrangement of white, purple and gold flowers – the suffrage colors – from my garden on her grave. Post bent down to take a picture.

Why did she come? “It makes me feel as if what Alice Paul stood for, it’s not about words, it’s about deeds,” said Post.

Women, she said, "cut to the chase." Trying to improve the world "is not a political game. We take it seriously."

Paul, for sure, had absorbed the Quaker credo of living “a useful life,” which indeed she did. Her quest for suffrage, and then for the Equal Rights Amendment, consumed her life, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. Paul still had hopes that the ERA would pass when she died in 1977, but it stalled just short of the number of states needed for ratification.

A sporadic stream of people, almost all women, came on this historic Election Day to visit Paul’s grave. That, according to an Inquirer reporter who had staked out a position and was busy interviewing them.

So, what would Post do on election night? “I will go home and make a meal and try to cook and stay calm."

She had a parting word as she left the cemetery: “Alice, thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you did. Rest in peace.”

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