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Alice Paul (1885 – 1977)

Alice Paul (1885 – 1977)

Alice Paul

Alice Paul was, arguably, the most influential individual in the fight for women’s rights of the 20th century.

Born on January 11, 1885, Paul was the oldest child of successful businessman William Paul and his wife, Tacie. Alice and her siblings were raised on a comfortable New Jersey farm, but as Quakers, the family lived simply, learning firsthand the value of hard work. They also learned gender equality, as well as a necessity to work for the improvement of society. Perhaps one of her strongest influences was Tacie, who as a member of the National American Women’s Suffragist Association (NAWSA), brought Alice along to the meetings.

Paul studied biology at Swarthmore College, earned an MA in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, then studied social work in England. While in England, she became acquainted with Emmeline Pankhurst, the militant suffragist, who used visible means to draw attention to the lack of women’s rights, and to hold the party in power responsible for women’s disenfranchisement. Paul joined their movement and was arrested and jailed several times.

Paul returned to America in 1910, armed with tactics to re-energize the suffrage movement here. In 1912 she and friend, Lucy Burns, moved to Washington, DC, to organize for suffrage for NAWSA. Reflecting Pankhurst influences, Paul and Burns organized a huge women’s suffrage march in DC to attract ultimate national attention – on the eve of the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. Drawing obscenities, insults, and violence, while police looked on, the parade was national news the following day, and suffrage became a popular subject in the news in the years that followed.

Although Paul was a member of the NAWSA, she and its president, Carrie Chapman Catt, disagreed on how to attain suffrage. Paul hoped to achieve women’s voting rights with a constitutional amendment. NAWSA worked closely with state governments to encourage them to change their voting laws, one by one. Paul wanted to hold the national party in power responsible for the lack of women’s voting rights; NAWSA endorsed President Wilson. Paul and her followers broke from NAWSA, forming the National Woman’s Party in 1916.

In 1917 Paul, Burns and others organized the Silent Sentinels. Day after day, women stood silently at the White House gates, picketing for women’s suffrage. They were soon arrested for “blocking traffic,” and refusing to pay their fines, were imprisoned in the Washington, DC jail and the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Va. Considering themselves political prisoners, when given that status, Paul and the others began hunger strikes; their tactics were met with brutality. Paul was considered the ringleader and, as such, was held separately at the DC Jail, and later in the psychiatric ward there where an attempt was made to declare her insane. (It is unclear if Paul was ever incarcerated at the Occoquan Workhouse.) The women’s efforts were not in vain. With the bad publicity that ensued, President Wilson soon gave his support for a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote.

After gaining passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, Alice Paul considered the battle for equality incomplete, and continued to work on women’s issues. She returned to college and earned three degrees in law. In 1923 Paul began efforts to pass an Equal Rights Amendment, which was introduced in every Congress until passage (but never ratified) in 1972. She worked tirelessly for women’s causes worldwide, including the establishment of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. She also led a US coalition to successfully include a clause prohibiting sexual discrimination in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Source: Alice Paul Institute, Alice Paul: Feminist, Suffragist and Political Strategist.