Credited with revitalizing the movement for women's suffrage, Alice Paul (1885-1977) mobilized a generation of women who had grown impatient with the incremental measures being takentoward gaining the vote. Paul helped to found the Congressional Union (later the National Woman's Party) and led a movement dedicated to the passageof a constitutional amendment for women's suffrage.Her tactics led to the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919.
Paul was born in Moorestown, New Jersey on January 11, 1885, just five years before the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Though her vision of women's rights was never as comprehensive as that of Stanton, Paul always remained committed to women's freedom. The oldest of four children, Paul grew up in a family committed to social justice. Her parents, William M. Paul, a businessman and president of the Burlington County Trust Company, and Tacie Parry, belonged to the Society of Friends and instilled in Paul the Quaker values of discipline, service, honesty, and equality between the sexes. Paul's forbears also included, on her mother's side, the Quaker leader William Penn, who advocated religious tolerance, and on her father's side, the Winthrops of Massachusetts. Her mother, one of the first women to attend Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, took her daughter to her first suffrage meeting when she was just a child.
When Paul was 16, her father died suddenly of pneumonia. The family, though financially secure, accepted the guidance and authority of a male relative, whose conservative views created some tension in the household. Paul, who had attended a Quaker school in Moorestown, left home to attend Swarthmore College where she studied biology because, according to Christine A. Lunardini in From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights: Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party: 1910-1928, "it was something about which she knew nothing." She discovered politics and economics in her senior year. Professor Robert Brooks recommended her for a College Settlement Association fellowship at the New York School of Philanthropy. When she graduated from Swarthmore in 1905, Paul spent a year there studying social work. She later earned a master's degree in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and became interested in the problems raised by women's inferior legal status. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in 1912 from the University of Pennsylvania with a dissertation on the legal status of women, a law degree in 1922 from Washington College of Law, and a second Ph.D. in law in 1928 from American University.
Seeds of Militancy
Paul's shift from social work to law reflected a more profound shift in her political sensibilities. In the fall of 1907, Paul interrupted her studies at the University of Pennsylvania to accept a fellowship in social work at the Quaker training school in Woodbridge, England. While she was studying at the University of Birmingham, Christabel Pankhurst, the daughter of the famous British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, was prevented from addressing a university audience there by a hostile crowd. Paul had never before witnessed outright opposition to the suffrage cause, and was shocked. The event radicalized her. On the invitation of the Charity Organization Society of London, she became a caseworker in Dalston and attended her first suffrage parade there in 1908. For the next two years, she worked closely with the Women's Social and Political Union, participating in the more militant strategies of British feminism: demonstrations, imprisonment, and hunger strikes.
The National Association of Woman Suffrage Association
Paul left England after a brief incarceration at Halloway Prison for her suffrage activities and returned to the University of Pennsylvania in 1910. She resumed her studies, but with a new determination to change the legal status of women. At the NAWSA convention in 1910, Paul lectured on "The English Situation" in an attempt to bring the new militancy across the Atlantic. NAWSA resisted Paul's commitment to direct action, but a younger generation of activists found Paul's new optimism captivating. In 1913, she and Lucy Burns, a graduate of Vassar College whom she had first met in a police station in London, assumed leadership of NAWSA's Congressional Committee and began a campaign for a constitutional amendment that would enfranchise women across the nation.
For a federal campaign to succeed, Paul believed, it needed to have the support of the president. Paul selected March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, for a massive suffrage parade on Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington, D.C. Not only would the suffragists gain important publicity for their cause, they would also inform the president that they were willing to hold the party in power responsible for women's enfranchisement. Over 8,000 marchers participated; over a half million people gathered along the parade route. When President Wilson arrived at the train station that afternoon, few were there to greet him; instead they had gone to Pennsylvania Avenue to watch the suffrage parade. Though Paul had done her part to organize an ordered and peaceful march, an unruly crowd assaulted the suffragists while police stood by and did nothing. The near-riot resulted in a special Senate investigation that resulted in the removal of the superintendent of police. A few days after the parade, a Congressional committee sent a delegation to the White House to meet with the president, who politely asked for more time to consider the matter of women's suffrage. Nevertheless, Paul's first major organizing effort had met with some success.
National Woman's Party
Despite the success of the suffrage parade, Paul encountered increasing resistance from NAWSA over the next several months. NAWSA members feared that Paul's political strategy of holding the Democratic Party responsible for enfranchisement would upset the tentative gains they had made at the state level. In addition, NAWSA had never really embraced Paul's vision of a constitutional amendment. By the summer of 1914, after a divisive struggle within NAWSA, Paul and Burns left to form a newly independent Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, later renamed the National Woman's Party (NWP). By 1916, the struggle for women's suffrage had shifted to the federal level and Paul's militant tactics, which included picketing the White House, required a group of enthusiastic and dedicated suffragists. The members of NWP were mostly white, middle-class, enfranchised women who were willing to risk respectability, comfort, and even freedom to extend the franchise nationally. For the next two years, many members of NWP, including Paul, endured harassment, imprisonment, forced feedings, and threats, but continued to pursue the goal of a constitutional amendment with dogged determination.
White House Pickets
In January 1917, the NWP stationed members in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. On the eve of America's involvement in the First World War, the tactic was confrontational and audacious; the NWP was the first group ever to picket the White House. Opponents would argue that it bordered on treason. For Paul, whose single-mindedness about women's equality had never wavered, America's involvement in a war for democracy had no moral ground if the nation refused to grant all of its citizens the right to vote. The NWP picketed the White House for 18 months. Thousands of local women, unaffiliated with the NWP, volunteered for the picket lines. While the public initially supported the picketers, by April 1917 Wilson had declared war and support plummeted. The threat of arrest became imminent.
In June, NWP members Lucy Burns and Katherine Morey were arrested by district police, charged with obstruction of traffic, and released. Twenty-seven more women were arrested over the next several weeks. Soon, heavier sentences were handed down and 16 women were required to serve 60 days at Occoquan Workhouse, in Virginia. By September, the House voted to establish a House Committee on Woman Suffrage, and for the first time both branches of Congress had standing committees to consider the question of enfranchisement for women. Picketers were bolstered by the news and more women continued to risk arrest and imprisonment. Conditions at Occoquan differed little from conditions at most prisons in the early part of the twentieth century. Cells were small, dark, and unsanitary. Food was infested with mealworms. Prisoners were routinely harassed and intimidated. Soon, however, it became apparent that the suffragists, and especially their leaders, were being singled out by authorities frustrated by the picketers' tenacity.
In October, Paul was arrested on the picket line and sent to Occoquan. By the end of the month, she and fellow suffragist Rose Winslow began a hunger strike in order to secure their rights as political prisoners. Over the next three weeks, three times each day, Paul and Winslow were force fed; tubes were pushed into their noses and down their throats. In addition, Paul was moved to a psychiatric ward where she was monitored day and night by an attendant holding a flashlight up to her face. Lunardini notes that "prison psychiatrists interviewed her on several occasions and it was made clear to her that one signature on an admission form was all that was necessary to have her committed to an insane asylum."
By November 1917, the ordeal was over and the women were released from prison. President Wilson, who was wearied by the tactics of the NWP, announced his support for the suffrage amendment in January 1918. When the Senate refused to pass the bill, Paul once again resumed her picket campaign. When 48 suffragists were arrested, a public outcry prompted the women's release.
By 1919, the amendment had passed both houses. Paul, however, continued to lobby until it was ratified in 1920. The passage of the 19th Amendment, for so long the focus of Paul's efforts, prompted the NWP to reconsider its political goals. Though she gave up leadership of the NWP after 1920, Paul's ideas still dominated. She drafted an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which was introduced in Congress in 1923. Her notion that "men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States," was a controversial one. Many feminists worried that it would invalidate labor laws that protected women in the workplace, but Paul continued to insist on the simple principle of equality instilled in her by her Quaker upbringing.
Paul continued to struggle for women's equal rights throughout the middle decades of the 20th century. During World War II, when the war effort required a temporary suspension of protective labor laws, the ERA was revived once again, endorsed by both parties, and debated in Congress. In the 1950s, Paul lobbied Congress to include sex discrimination among the equal protections advanced by the Civil Rights bill and succeeded in securing equal rights for women in employment in 1964.
Paul died on July 9, 1977 in Moorestown, New Jersey, convinced that organizers would be successful in securing the three states needed to ratify the ERA. The amendment, however, was defeated, ending the movement to provide women with a constitutional right to equal justice. Often rigid and conservative, Paul never embraced a broad social platform for women's rights. But her single-minded devotion to legal equality shaped the feminist movement over much of the twentieth century.
Further Reading on Alice Paul
American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and March C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Encyclopedia of American Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Jerome L. Sternstein, Harper Collins, 1996.
Lunardini, Christine A., From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights:Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party, 1910-1928, New York University Press, 1986.
Reader's Companion to American History, edited by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Houghton Mifflin, 1991.