Who is Alice Paul?
Alice Paul was the architect of some of the most outstanding political achievements in the 20th century.
Little in Alice Paul’s cloistered Quaker background foreshadowed the charismatic and clever tactician she would become at the helm of the National Woman’s Party, the militant wing of the twentieth century woman suffrage movement.
Born on January 11, 1885, on a small farm in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, the eldest of four, young Alice “never met anybody who wasn’t a Quaker,” with one notable exception: the Irish Catholic maids who attended dances. There was no music in the Paul homestead, where time was believed better spent in less worldly pursuits. Quakers believe in absolute equality and dedication to a divinely inspired “concern.” For an earlier generation it was abolition. For Paul, it was suffrage.
She graduated from Swarthmore in 1905, flirted with social work on New York’s lower east side and travelled to England for further studies, where she enlisted in the Woman’s Social and Political Union, the original “suffragettes,” headed by firebrand Emmeline Pankhurst. Paul dreaded public speaking, but was fearless of confrontation. She returned to the United States in 1910, a veteran of imprisonments, hunger strikes and an ugly episode of force feeding.
Borrowing tactics she had learned abroad, she launched her American campaign with a massive suffrage parade on Pennsylvania Avenue on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 inauguration. But four years of rallies, lobbying, petitions, parades and election campaigns failed to budge Congress or gain the president’s support. On January 10, 1917, Paul led a dozen women to the gates of the White House. The first people ever to picket the White House, they called themselves “Silent Sentinels” but they carried banners that shrieked:
“MR. PRESIDENT HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?”
“MR. PRESIDENT WHAT WILL YOU DO FOR WOMAN SUFFRAGE?”
As war fever swept America, ever more strident banners accused Wilson of hypocrisy in his call for world democracy. Incensed by their disloyalty, mobs attacked the women. The suffragists were arrested, jailed and force fed when they went on hunger strikes. Alice Paul was seized and confined to a prison psychiatric ward. The press bowed to pressure from the administration to bury news of the protestors, but reports of brutal treatment leaked out.
Exactly one year after the picketing began, Wilson announced his support for the amendment “as an act of right and justice to the women of the country and the world.” When the suffrage amendment was signed into law on August 26, 1920, Paul had won more than the vote. A U.S. Court of Appeals had thrown out charges against the pickets. The legal precedents set by Alice Paul opened up Washington to generations of protestors to come, her pioneering campaign of civil disobedience the model .
Post suffrage, Paul armed herself with three law degrees for legal battles ahead. She was instrumental in winning guarantees of gender equality in both the United Nations charter and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Most notably, she wrote and campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment. She died on July 9, 1977 at the age of 92, living to see the ERA pass, but dying too soon to know it would never be ratified.
“There is danger that because of a great victory women will believe their whole struggle for independence ended. They have still far to go. It is for the Woman’s Party to decide whether there is any way in which it can serve in the struggle which lies ahead to remove the remaining forms of woman’s subordination” (Alice Paul, The Suffragist, 1921)
“It is incredible to me that any woman should consider the fight for full equality won. It has just begun. There is hardly a field, economic or political, in which the natural and unaccustomed policy is not to ignore women…Unless women are prepared to fight politically they must be content to be ignored politically.” (Alice Paul, 1920)
“The work of the National Woman’s Party is to take sex out of law-to give women the equality in law they have won at the polls.” (Alice Paul, 1922)