Credit: Associated Press
Alice Paul dedicated her life to the cause of women’s equality. She was an architect of the movement that led to passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote. Viewing that victory as only a first step, Paul drafted the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923 but had to wait almost fifty years—until 1972—before Congress passed it, only to watch it die when too few states ratified it. In the 1930s and 1940s she worked with the League of Nations and then the United Nations to get those institutions to adopt the principle of gender equality. In the 1960s she spearheaded a coalition that added a sexual discrimination clause to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a landmark law that helped break down many barriers to women’s equality.
The Paul family lived outside Moorestown, New Jersey, on a 265-acre farm they called "Paulsdale," with a large house with indoor plumbing, electricity, and a telephone. But they were not typical farmers. Her father was the president of a bank. Alice and her three younger siblings had some chores to perform, but hired workers did the actual farming, and maids did the cooking and cleaning. But the Pauls were not a typical rich family, either. Although they had many material comforts, they lived quite simply given their wealth.
Alice was descended from Hicksite Quakers, the most liberal and egalitarian wing of Quakers. They believed in gender equality and in working for the betterment of society—ideals Alice’s parents instilled in her from an early age. Paul’s mother was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and sometimes took Alice with her to women’s suffrage meetings. Paul attended a Hicksite Quaker school, graduating first in her class in 1901. It was a foregone conclusion that she would attend Swarthmore College, a co-ed Quaker institution that her grandfather, Judge William Parry, had helped start in 1864.
Paul’s Swarthmore professors included some of the nation’s leading female academics. One of them, math professor Susan Cunningham, liked to say, "Use thy gumption." Much of Paul’s political life could be summarized by those words.
After graduating from Swarthmore, Paul earned a master’s degree in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1907 she moved to England to practice social work among the poor at a Quaker-run settlement house in Birmingham. One day she heard a speech by Christabel Pankhurst, the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the radical wing of England’s feminist movement. Paul was intrigued by the Pankhursts’ motto, "Deeds not words," which they translated into direct action, including heckling, rock throwing, and window smashing, to draw attention to the cause of women’s rights. Not surprisingly, the women often got arrested for such protests, which led to newspaper photos of activists being carried away in handcuffs by the police.
Hesitant at first to join their militant crusade, Paul eventually overcame her fears and was arrested and jailed several times. In prison, she and other suffragettes protested their confinement with hunger strikes. Their jailers force-fed them. Paul took solace in a motto that one of her fellow activists carved into the prison wall: "Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God."
When Paul returned to the United States in 1910, she was determined to inject the radical ideas she had learned in England into the women’s rights movement. While earning her Ph.D. in economics at the University of Pennsylvania (her dissertation examined women’s legal status), she joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). At the suggestion of Jane Addams, she was soon appointed head of the committee responsible for working for a federal women’s suffrage amendment.
In 1912 she moved to Washington, DC, and joined forces with Lucy Burns, another American, whom she had met when they were both arrested in a London suffrage protest. The duo began planning an elaborate parade on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration, scheduled for March 4, 1913. About 8,000 college, professional, middle- and working-class women marched with banners and floats down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. The crowd watching the march was estimated at half a million people; many harassed the marchers while the police stood by. Troops were called to restore order and to help the suffragists get to their destination—six hours after the parade started. The melee generated headlines, making the issue of women’s suffrage a topic of conversation around the country.
Although Wilson showed some interest in the women’s cause, he said the time was not yet right. Paul never believed that Wilson was the least bit sympathetic to women’s suffrage. He would only support them, she thought, if public opinion compelled him to.
In this and other respects, Paul disagreed with NAWSA leaders. They endorsed Wilson, despite his opposition to women’s suffrage, hoping they could eventually convince him. They worried that Paul’s tactics could trigger a backlash. They also disagreed with Paul’s emphasis on winning a federal amendment. The NAWSA’s main focus was on winning women the vote one state at a time, hoping to build momentum that could later lead to a federal constitutional change. By 1912, however, only nine states had granted women the vote.
In reality, the two strategies complemented each other: even if the amendment was passed by Congress, it would have to be ratified in the states, where NAWSA was building its base.
But the broader disagreements led to a split. Paul and her followers first formed the Congressional Union in 1914, which became the National Woman’s Party (NWP), an organization that recruited women prepared to engage in direct action. The NWP published a weekly paper and staged demonstrations, parades, mass meetings, picketing, hunger strikes, and lobbying vigils. Suffragists released from prison, wearing prison uniforms, rode a "Prison Special" train, speaking throughout the country.
Paul’s critics called her a fanatic. Her loyal followers considered her a self-sacrificing heroine who inspired women to take risks for the cause. She was a charismatic figure who not only had incredible leadership skills but also was a gifted administrator, a rare combination. Despite her Quakerism, however, she reflected some of the attitudes of her upper-class background, including prejudices against Jews and African Americans. The NWP was overwhelmingly white, middle class, and Protestant.
Starting in January 1917, the NWP organized "silent sentinels"—activists standing outside the White House holding banners asking, "Mr. President, what will you do for suffrage?" and "Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?" Over the next eighteen months, more than 1,000 women picketed, including Alice, every day except Sunday. Wilson initially patronized the protesters, tipping his hat to them when he passed by. But when the United States entered World War I, the president and others became irate over the idea of women picketing outside the White House while the nation was at war. Angry mobs attacked the protesters, and police began arresting them on the trumped-up charge of obstructing traffic.
Sent to a prison in Virginia, Paul and her colleagues adopted the tactics she had learned in England. They demanded to be treated as political prisoners and staged hunger strikes. Their jailers beat them and confined them to cold, unsanitary, rat-infested cells.
The press reported on the suffragists’ terrible experiences in prison, and politicians and activist groups demanded their release. The public outcry played a role in Wilson’s decision in 1917 to reverse his stance and announce his support for a suffrage amendment. He explained that it was a "war measure"—to stop the controversy over women’s rights from dividing the country during wartime.
But it was not until the war was over, in 1919, that both the House and the Senate passed the Nineteenth Amendment. Because the suffrage movement had invested heavily in state-level campaigns, its leaders were confident they could garner the three-fourths of the states needed to ratify the amendment. By the summer of 1920, they needed just one more state to vote in favor; the Tennessee legislature met in August 1920 to vote on the issue. The deciding vote was cast by Harry Burn, at twenty-four the youngest member of the Tennessee assembly. He initially intended to vote "no" but changed his vote after receiving a telegram from his mother asking him to support women’s suffrage. Women finally gained the right to vote seventy-two years after the women’s suffrage movement began.
Unlike many suffragists, however, Paul viewed the victory as simply a stepping-stone toward fuller women’s equality. In 1923 she announced a campaign for another constitutional amendment that read, simply, "Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction." What became known as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) split the women’s movement. The League of Women Voters, the National Consumers League, the Women’s Trade Union League, and other women’s groups opposed the ERA on the grounds that it would abolish protective labor legislation for women.
With Paul’s backing, the ERA was introduced in every session of Congress after 1923. In 1944 both the Republicans and the Democrats included the ERA in their party platforms. When Congress began debating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Paul helped lead a coalition to add the word "sex" to Title VII, which banned discrimination in employment. Few members of Congress understood the importance of adding just that single word.
In 1972, when Paul was eighty-seven, the new women’s movement got Congress to adopt the ERA, but only thirty-five states—three short of the number needed—ratified the amendment. By then, Paul, who had been out of the limelight for many years, had become a heroine to the new generation of feminists.
When a Newsweek reporter asked Paul to explain her remarkable perseverance in the struggle for women’s rights, she recalled an adage she had learned from her mother while she was growing up on the family farm: "When you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row."
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