“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.” – Alice Paul, 1972
Few people have had a greater impact on achieving equality for American women than ALICE PAUL (1885 – 1977). Paul dedicated her life to the single cause of gaining equal rights for all women.
Born January 11, 1885 to economically comfortable and well educated Hicksite Quaker parents, Paul grew up believing in equality of the sexes. She was raised near Morristown, N.J., on the family farm, Paulsdale. Paul’s suffragist ideals were instilled in her early by her mother Tacie, who was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), regularly attended women’s suffrage meetings and took Alice with her.
Paul attended a Hicksite Quaker school in Morristown, N.J. and graduated in 1901 at the top of her class. Gender equality was at the center of her Quaker upbringing. As Paul noted, “When the Quakers were founded…one of their principles was and is equality of the sexes. So I never had any other idea…the principle was always there.” This Quaker principle probably explains why many of the suffragettes, including Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott, were Quakers.
Paul entered Swarthmore College in 1901. It was important to her family that she attend. Her grandfather, Judge William Parry, was one of the founders or the co-educational school in 1864. He believed that men and women should receive an equal education based on Quaker principles. Parry’s daughter Tacie (Paul’s mother) attended Swarthmore for 3 years but had to drop out in her Senior year because of her marriage to Paul’s father (married women were not allowed to attend school). Tacie promised that all of her four children would at least attend Swarthmore for a year; all of them did, but Alice, the oldest, was the only one to graduate from there. Alice graduated with a degree in Biology in 1905. Alice was a member of the Executive Board of Student Government, and was named Ivy Poetess. She was also a commencement speaker.
Like Maud Younger, who we honored yesterday, Paul worked in the settlement movement in New York after graduating from Swarthmore. In 1907 she left for England to study social work at the Woodbrooke Settlement in Birmingham. It was while she was there that she went from a mere believer in equal rights for women to becoming militant about them. One day she happened upon a woman speaking about women’s suffrage who was being heckled by bystanders. Alice introduced herself to the speaker who turned out to be Christabel Pankhurst who was the daughter of England’s most radical and visible suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst. The Pankhurst women’s motto was “Deeds not words”, and they made known their beliefs by do such things as breaking windows and throwing rocks to gain the public’s attention about suffrage. They often made the front pages of newspapers being shown being dragged away in handcuffs by the police. Paul joined their movement; she claimed to have personally broken more than 48 windows and was arrested and jailed many times. During her times of confinement she said she often took strength from what her friend’s posted on the jail walls: “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God”. This slogan was later adopted by Susan B. Anthony and inspired Paul’s generation of suffragettes. Paul now believed that militancy was what had been missing in the American approach to women’s suffrage.
Paul returned to the United States in 1910 to pursue graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. While there she joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and was appointed head of the Congressional Committee working for a federal suffrage amendment (a secondary goal of NAWSA; its primary goal being equal voting rights for women). Paul and two friends, Lucy Burns and Crystal Eastman, headed to Washington, D.C. and organized a huge parade of women to march up Pennsylvania Avenue in conjunction with the presidential inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. The women were heckled and physically attacked by large groups of male onlookers while the police stood on the sidelines allowing the violence to go on. The next day Paul’s group made headlines in newspapers across the country causing the topic of woman’s suffrage to be discussed by everyday citizens as well as politicians.
Carrie Chapman Catt (see https://centraloregoncoastnow.org/2013/01/09/january-9-in-womens-history/), who was President of NAWSA, and Alice Paul shared the same goals of woman’s suffrage, but their strategies were totally incompatible. In 1914, Paul and her group of followers severed all ties with NAWSA and formed the National Woman’s Party (NWP). The NWP organized the “Silent Sentinels” who picketed in front of the White House with incendiary statements about President Wilson. Wilson did not take the women seriously at first, but when World War I started so did his attitude and that of the public. Many thought it unpatriotic to picket a wartime president, especially when the women started referring to the president as “Kaiser Wilson”. The picketers started by arrested on such charges as “obstructing traffic”. When they refused to pay the fines they were jailed. None of this stopped the women. They continued to picket, be arrested, and jailed.
The suffragists who were arrested were sent to Occoquan Workhouse, a prison in Virginia. While there, Paul and her cohorts demanded to be treated as political prisoners and staged hunger strikes. Conditions in the prison for the women got worse, with many of them, including older, frail women being beaten and brutalized. Paul was removed to a sanitarium with the intention that she be declared insane. Eventually the press got wind of the hunger strikes and the terrifying and unsafe conditions in the prison, and people started demanding that the women be released. Public sympathy for the prisoners began to turn the tide in favor of woman’s suffrage.
Calling it a “war measure”, in 1917, in response to the public outcry over the abuse of the suffragists in prison, President Wilson reversed his position and announced his support for a woman’s suffrage amendment. In 1919 Congress passed the 19th Amendment, and in 1920 Tennessee became the last state needed to ratify the Amendment. On August 26, 1920 the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was signed into law. Women throughout the United States now had the right to vote.
Once the 19th Amendment became the law of the land Paul turned her attention toward securing the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment. She first dubbed it the “Lucretia Mott Amendment”. The Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in every session of Congress from 1923 until it passed in 1972. In 1943 it was rewritten slightly and dubbed the “Alice Paul Amendment”.
For the rest of her life, after the passage of the 19th Amendment”, Paul worked tirelessly for the passage and ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. She also earned three law degrees and travelled extensively to Europe and Latin America. In 1938, she began the World Woman’s Party (WWP) which was based in Geneva, Switzerland. The WWP worked to include gender equality in the United Nations Charter and to establish the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Back in the United States, Paul led the coalition that was successful in having sex discrimination included in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Paul continued to work for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment; ratification still has not been achieved. Alice Paul died July 9, 1977 in Moorestown, New Jersey. (Currently efforts are underway to get Congress to again extend the deadline for ratification; if it does it will take 3 more states to ratify; for more information: http://www.equalrightsamendment.org)
For more information on Alice Paul, visit the Alice Paul Institute webpage: http://www.alicepaul.org
–Nancy Campbell Mead