| Alice Paul
Adapted from With Courage and Cloth, by Ann Bausum,
McGuire, William, and Leslie Wheeler. "Alice Paul." American History. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 26 Jan. 2011. and
"Paul, Alice (1885-1977)." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Thomson Gale, 1998. Academic OneFile. Web. 26 Jan. 2011;
Alice Paul devoted her life to fighting for women's rights, not just in America but worldwide. She was the key player in pressuring Congress and the states to pass and ratify the 19th Amendment. Towards the end of her life, she told an interviewer, “I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems are complicated. But to me there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.”
Paul was born on January 11, 1885 in Moorestown, New Jersey into a well-to-do Quaker family. The oldest of four children, Paul grew up in a family committed to social justice. Her parents, William M. Paul, and Tacie Parry instilled in their daughter the Quaker values of discipline, service, honesty, and equality between the sexes. Her mother 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 high school in Moorestown, left home to attend Swarthmore College where she studied biology because, "it was something about which she knew nothing." She discovered politics and economics in her senior year. 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.
In 1906, Paul went to England to do social work and continue her graduate education. In England, she joined the militant wing of the British suffrage movement. Her activities led to three periods of imprisonment. When, in protest, she went on hunger strikes, she was subjected to painful forced feedings.
In 1910 Paul met Lucy Burns at a London police station. (They had just been arrested.) The women protested together after their release until Paul returned to the United States. The two women complemented one another perfectly, not unlike the match between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. “They seemed in those early days to have one spirit and one brain,” a mutual friend observed.
Back in the United States, Paul joined NAWSA, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. She became the leader of NAWSA’s “Congressional Committee.” In 1913, Paul and Burns worked with the Congressional Committee to plan a massive suffrage parade on March 3, the day before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson. Alice Paul and her collaborators knew that plenty of people, including the media would be on hand already for that occasion and would see and report about their event. Location was critical, too. They insisted that the march follow the same prestigious route reserved for the Inaugural procession.
A small army of volunteers helped design floats, recruit bands, and enlist marchers for the event. Organizers wanted so many women to gather from so many places and with such a variety of backgrounds that their presence would be overwhelming. Surely no one – not news reporters, not business leader, not lawmakers, not the man on the street, not even the new President would miss the point. Women, whatever their differences, were committed to one common goal: they wanted the right to vote.
Around 8,000 women participated in this march. At the start of the procession, Inez Milholland rode on an all white horse with the banner “Forward out of darkness, forward into light.” It became a motto for Paul and her followers. Six divisions of women followed, each one representing a theme about women’s rights. The parade featured groups of women doctors, nurses, lawyers, business leaders, artists, and educators. Women gathered to represent their clubs, states, religious groups, the Red Cross, the PTA, and political parties. Wives and daughters of congressmen joined the parade. African Americans were encouraged to march in a segregated group near the end of the lineup. At least one – Ida B. Wells-Barnett from Chicago – insisted on marching alongside her white colleagues. Alice Paul marched midway in the procession with a sizeable delegation of college graduates. She must have felt proud. The diversity, unity, and determination of these “troops” were unmistakable. A conquering army could not have looked more courageous or full of purpose.
There was only one problem: The crowd didn’t like what it saw. Perhaps the onlookers, who were mostly men, were intimidated by the sight of so many women organized to seek power. The spectators began to harass the marchers. They broke past restraining ropes, pushed, shouted insults and obscenities, and pinched and spat at the passionate women. They threatened marchers, tore off their badges, and attempted to climb some of the floats. Police officers merely watched. “There would be nothing like this if you women would all stay at home,” suggested one officer.
As the parade deteriorated into a near riot, a few sympathetic men stepped forward. A regiment of National Guard troops pushed back the crowd at one intersection. Boy Scouts used their walking staffs to restrain spectators elsewhere. Federal cavalry troops were called in. The march had been planned to last two hours. It dragged on until nightfall. The conflict made newspapers around the country. The right of women to vote was transformed overnight from the special interest of a few persistent activists into a national topic of discussion.
Paul and Burns kept the momentum going after the 1913 parade. They led delegations of suffragists to visit the President. They worked with others to collect suffrage petitions, raised thousands of dollars for the cause, and started a weekly newspaper, The Suffragist. They identified thousands of supporters nationwide and organized them into state chapters.
NAWSA leaders were startled by the success of Paul’s sub-group, the Congressional Committee. Suddenly it seemed to be competing with its parent organization for members and financial support. Paul’s forceful tactics were attracting criticism as too bold and “unwomanly.” NAWSA officials, aware of Paul’s radical activism in England, worried about what she might to next.
In 1914, Paul and her followers broke away and formed the National Woman’s Party. They focused on passing a federal amendment to the Constitution. Carrie Chapman Catt and the women of NAWSA continued to focus on changing state laws.
In 1917, Paul devised a new series of strategies. Beginning on January 10, 1917, women from the National Woman’s Party picketed outside the White House. The women were to be “silent sentinels.” Instead of calling out their demands to President Wilson, they would write them on cloth banners for him – and everyone else – to see. Eventually almost 2,000 women took turns picketing. They were as young as 19 and as old as 80. Many were college educated. About half were unmarried. With occasional exceptions – such as the African American suffragist Mary Church Terrell – they were white. Some were committed activists. Others volunteered on a whim while visiting the city from elsewhere in the U.S. or abroad – some even while honeymooning.
The U.S entered World War I in the spring of 1917. This prompted some activists to stop campaigning for the right to vote. They worked with the Red Cross, took jobs in military supply factories and filled in for departing troops. Alice Paul believed it was not fair or strategic to stop fighting for suffrage. Her National Woman’s Party adopted a “votes-for-women-first” policy: By supporting suffrage ahead of war work, they proclaimed, “the organization serves the highest interests of the country.”
Paul reprinted the President’s call for democracy on challenging – and, for Wilson, embarrassing – new banners. Surely U.S. women had the right to have a vote in their own government too. Paul’s “army” picketed not only at the White House but outside the U.S. Capitol, as well. Now, however, there was an even stronger reaction in the newspapers. The NWP was called “unwomanly,” “unpatriotic,” “dangerous,” “undesirable,” and “treasonable.” Newspaper publishers made an unofficial agreement to minimize their coverage of the protests; perhaps decreased publicity would prompt the protests to stop. The chief of police warned Paul that future pickets faced arrest. “We have picketed for six months without interference,” observed Alice Paul. “Has the law been changed?” No, he said, “but you must stop it.” Paul did not.
The first arrests of suffrage activists began on June 22, 1917. By the end of the month 27 women had been arrested. Six were tried and convicted. These women – including three teachers and a nurse – refused to pay the $25 fine for obstructing traffic. They went to jail, becoming the first American suffragists to serve prison terms.
By July 1917, Paul’s National Woman’s Party had more provocative banners. “Governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed,” read the text on the Fourth of July, quoting from the Declaration of Independence. In August, the women unveiled a banner which called the President, “Kaiser Wilson” – the title for the hated German leader! Soldiers and sailors attacked the activists while police officers watched. The mob followed the women back to their headquarters where they attempted to storm the building and fired shots at it. The mob violence continued for several days – over 200 banners were destroyed. More women were arrested, while the violent actions of men were ignored. Despite the obstacles, the protests continued. In October, Paul was arrested. Within days, she was put in solitary confinement. In all more than 200 members of the NWP were arrested (often repeatedly) in 1917. 106 served time in jail, either in the District Jail or the Occoquan Workhouse.
Even on a good day, prison life was hard. Women wore uncomfortable clothing. And blankets were washed once a year. Guards threatened to use their whipping post, mouth gags, and straitjackets. Rats fought in the shadow. The women were prohibited from talking at meals, which featured worm-infested grains and soups. Guards, who were male, denied the women any privacy. Prisoners were refused regular access to toothbrushes, combs, soap, and toilet paper. They were denied writing supplies and reading materials.
Despite this the women kept up their sprits by teaching each other foreign languages and singing songs. They were determined to continue the struggle, insisting that they were political prisoners. Paul emphasized the injustice of the government’s reaction to the pickets. “I am being imprisoned not because I obstructed traffic, but because I pointed out to President Wilson the fact that he is obstructing the progress of justice and democracy at home while Americans fight for it abroad.” After two weeks in prison, Paul and Rose Winslow, another protestor, began a hunger strike. Prison officials responded by placing Paul in the psychiatric ward in an effort to prove her insane. Paul maintained her hunger strike – and her sanity – despite episodes of sleep deprivation, interrogation, and force-feeding. When other suffragists at the District Jail heard of her hunger strike, they joined it.
Alice Paul and the other inmates were denied regular access to their lawyers and to visitors. They smuggled out secret accounts of their treatment with departing prisoners. At the end of November, President Wilson pardoned the activists. Eventually, the Appeals Court overturned all of their convictions. Alice Paul’s original jail sentence was for seven months. She served five weeks, spending three of them on a hunger strike.
In the fall of 1917, the press had started to write stories criticizing the harsh treatment of the activists. Public opinion was changing. In January 1918, Woodrow Wilson finally declared himself in favor of woman suffrage. Congress debated a national suffrage amendment throughout the year. When the Senate refused to pass the bill; Paul once again resumed her picket campaign. She and several others were arrested, returned to jail, and went on hunger strikes. Eventually both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed the Amendment. In 1920, it was ratified by three-fourths of the states.
When the 19th Amendment was ratified, Alice Paul was only 35 years old. She promptly went back to school and earned three degrees in law. Paul believed that the right to vote was only a tool for gaining other rights. Even though women could vote, Paul realized they were not treated equally in marriage, at work, or by laws. Paul sought to correct this injustice with another amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She hoped this one would strengthen the rights of women.
Paul’s idea became known at the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA.) It stated that “Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” It was introduced to every session of Congress from 1923 until 1970. Although it was eventually passed by Congress, it was never ratified by three-quarters of the states.
In the 1930s, Paul’s work assumed an international scope. She served as head of an organization that sought to obtain equal right for women in Latin America. She also began pushing for an Equal Rights Treaty, which would have guaranteed equality to women in all nations that signed. When the United Nations was organized after World War II, Paul was able to get a statement recognizing equal rights incorporated into its founding document.
Alice Paul died in 1977 at the age of 92. Today, the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party is a museum dedicated to celebrating the history of women’s progress towards equality. The farm where Alice Paul was born and raised is an historic site. It houses an institute that teaches girls leadership skills. Paul, without a doubt, would be proud, that her work continues.