Paul, Alice

views updated May 23 2018

Alice Paul

BORN: January 11, 1885 • Moorestown, New Jersey

DIED: July 9, 1977 • Moorestown, New Jersey

American suffragist

Voting rights activist Alice Paul was an important figure in the struggle to win support for the 1920 constitutional amendment that gave American women the right to vote nationally. Paul helped turn the movement into a highly public battle with some dramatic events, including an eighteen-month-long protest on the sidewalk outside of the White House.

"We women of America tell you that America is not a democracy. Twenty million women are denied the right to vote."

Quaker roots

Alice Stokes Paul grew up on a large family farm in Burlington County, New Jersey. Born on January 11, 1885, the first of four children in her family, she was raised in a modestly wealthy and progressive-minded home. Her father was a bank president, and her mother, Tacie Parry Paul, was one of the first women to study at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. The school was founded by members of the Quaker religion, and the Pauls belonged to this religious denomination, too, which was formally known as the Society of Friends. Quakers generally held tolerant views on social issues and were known for their commitments to community service and social justice. They also believed that men and women were equal before God. As a result, many Quaker women went on to play important roles in various American social reform movements.

Paul attended Quaker schools and followed her mother into Swarthmore. She earned an undergraduate degree in biology from the college in 1905, but had become interested in political topics and sociology—the study of human society and its institutions—by the time she graduated. She went on to study at the New York School of Philanthropy before receiving a master's degree in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1907. From there, she traveled to England to take courses at the University of Birmingham and the London School of Economics.

In both England and the United States, women had been working to secure suffrage, or the right to vote, since the mid-nineteenth century. Paul's mother had been part of this first generation of suffragists, as they were known, and took her daughter to a suffrage meeting when she was still a small child. The American activists, like their British counterparts, were largely middle-class women who had achieved a higher level of education than was commonplace at the time. Led by Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), these suffragists tried but failed to win adequate public and political support for a constitutional amendment that would give women the right to vote in all elections. Anthony and Stanton later formed the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which worked to win passage of laws that gave women the right to vote in some states.

Influenced by British suffragists

Until Paul's generation, the suffrage movement possessed many of the same characteristics as its membership ranks. It was a polite fight carried out by reasoned arguments. It avoided public scenes. A shift to more radical, or extreme, strategies occurred first in England, around the same time that Paul arrived there. She quickly found herself swept up by its energy. She joined the militant Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), whose strategies included the disruption of official party meetings and sessions of Parliament, the governing body of Great Britain. Arrested for her participation in a demonstration, Paul met another American activist, Lucy Burns (1879–1966), when both were taken to the same London police station. The two would work together for the next decade. The pair brought many of the more radical ideas of their British counterparts to the American struggle.

Paul ended up serving time in jail and took part in a suffragists' hunger strike to protest her imprisonment. She was forcibly fed by prison authorities, and her situation was reported on back home in newspapers like the New York Times. She returned to the United States in 1910 and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania two years later. In her dissertation, a lengthy paper written to fulfill requirements for a doctorate degree, she examined the legal status of women in Pennsylvania. She then moved to Washington, D.C., to take a job with NAWSA. By this point, there had been some small victories in the American suffragist movement. Since the early 1890s, eight other states had followed Wyoming in granting its female population the right to vote. At the time, NAWSA's policy was to continue to work at the state level. It had no plan in place to seek a constitutional amendment again.

Paul disagreed with this strategy and felt the time had come to try again for a federal law. She also knew that there was now a younger generation of women, like herself, who were similarly doubtful about the strategy of "asking" the male political establishment to allow them the right to vote. Paul thought that the suffragist movement should, like its British counterpart, demand that right instead.

March on Washington, D.C.

Paul's first step was to urge the NAWSA executive leadership to create an auxiliary, or supplementary, organization out of a congressional committee already in place. The leadership agreed, and in 1913 the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU) officially came into being. This was NAWSA's lobbying division, and its primary goal was to persuade politicians to pass a constitutional amendment that would give women the right to vote. Paul and her London colleague, Lucy Burns, were put in charge of the group. The National Woman's Party was also formed to assist in the effort.

Paul was a natural leader. She was also a successful fundraiser for the cause. In addition, she had learned from her experience in England about the power of using the print media to raise awareness about the cause.

Carrie Chapman Catt

Carrie Chapman Catt led the fight for women's voting rights in the United States as head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). As its president, she guided the organization into its most important and dynamic era, when American women finally won the right to vote nationally.

Born Carrie Lane in 1859 in Wisconsin, Catt was raised in Iowa and worked as a teacher. She paid her own way through college and graduated from the Iowa State Agricultural College with a science degree in 1880. After serving as a high school principal in Mason City, Iowa, in 1883, she became one of the first women to rise to the post of superintendent of schools in the United States. Catt was married twice and widowed early. She was interested in women's issues and supported the suffrage movement. After joining the Iowa Women Suffrage Association in the late 1880s, she quickly moved onto the national leadership stage with NAWSA.

A forceful and persuasive public speaker, Catt spoke to audiences and political groups across the country. NAWSA's primary strategy at the time involved working to achieve women's suffrage on a state by state basis. Catt became head of the group's National Organization Committee after 1895 and was elected NAWSA president in 1900 when Susan B. Anthony retired from the position. Catt served as NAWSA president for four years until her health declined.

In 1915 Catt was asked to resume the presidency of NAWSA. During World War I (1914–18), she addressed the U.S. Congress on women's suffrage. In her 1917 speech, she reminded lawmakers that American women had done much to help the war effort. For example, women worked in arms factories to replace male employees who had been drafted for military service. Women earned wages, which were taxable by the government. But taxation without fair representation, Catt reminded legislators, was an injustice that led the original British colonies to begin the war of independence.

Catt told lawmakers that a growing number of women were holding prominent positions of responsibility and authority. Women taught in hundreds of public school systems across the nation as well as in colleges. Some held law degrees or were doctors, while others served the public and private spheres. Asking women to work for voting rights at the state level had some drawbacks, she noted. As recorded on the SoJustNet Web site, Catt asked lawmakers if they realized that the situation forced "women of education, refinement, achievement, to beg men who cannot read for their political freedom?… Woman suffrage is coming—you know it. Will you, Honorable Senators and Members of the House of Representatives, help or hinder it?"

The Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote nationally, passed in both houses of Congress and was ratified by the minimum number of states to become law in August 1920. Catt then devoted her energies to a new mission: educating these new voters about their voting rights and responsibilities. She founded the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group that continues to work to educate all voters on the issues. Nonpartisan groups have no political affiliations. Catt was also active in the League of Nations, a post-World War I organization that was the forerunner of the United Nations. She died on March 9, 1947.

Recalling the major displays of suffragist strength back in London, she readied for her first major action, a march in Washington, D.C., on the day before president-elect Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21) was to be sworn into office. This was in early March 1913, and eight thousand women paraded from the Capitol Building to the Hall of the Daughters of the American Revolution. But tension was high at the march. Some men in the huge crowd that lined the parade route began shouting insults at the marchers. The unruly men even blocked the women's path and grabbed and pinched the marchers. The police did little to help the women. Many newspaper reporters were at the event, witnessed the harassment, and described the scene to their readers. When Wilson's train arrived in the nation's capital, there was scarcely a crowd there to greet him because the parade had become the day's major event in the city.

In the aftermath of the march, a congressional investigation occurred. As a result, the women received much sympathy from the public and the cause of women's suffrage came to the forefront of American politics. Paul's next strategy was again something she borrowed from the British. This was to challenge the party in power, the Democrats in this case, for failing to move forward on the issue. With Wilson in the White House, the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress as well as the executive branch. But Paul and Burns continued to be at odds with the NAWSA leadership because they wanted to pursue such radical approaches to women's suffrage. To move ahead, Paul led the CU into a formal split with the NAWSA, which allowed her and Burns to work more independently.

The strategy to shame the Democrats worked to a certain extent. On January 12, 1915, the U.S. House of Representatives spent six hours locked in debate over a proposed constitutional amendment to grant women full voting rights in America. It needed a two-thirds majority to move forward, but came up seventy-eight votes short.

Begins silent protest

Some of the House debate centered around whether or not giving women the right to vote should be a constitutional amendment at all. President Wilson, for example, publicly supported the idea of suffrage, but claimed it was a matter for the states to decide on their own. Once again, Paul responded to the lack of progress by the politicians with another strategy. She announced that the National Woman's Party would enter candidates in the 1916 elections. They knew they could not genuinely expect to win any seats in the House of Representatives, but Paul hoped they could at least rouse public debate in the western states where women were eligible voters in some local and state elections.

Paul and the suffragists stirred up the 1916 elections, but their next move would gain them lasting fame. On January 10, 1917, twelve women appeared in front of the White House lawn along with a sign that read, "Mr. President what will you do for woman suffrage?" Holding purple and gold banners, they became known as the "Silent Sentinels," and their appearance is thought to be the first nonviolent act of civil disobedience in the United States.

Paul was part of the group, which took shifts and picketed for the next eighteen months every day except Sundays. Different signs and slogans were used, and some were directed at Wilson, who was about to start his second term as president. The newspapers gave daily coverage to the protesters, and the media attention brought other women to Washington as volunteers for Sentinel duty. Their peaceful protest became a more troubling situation in April 1917 when the United States entered World War I (1914–18), a conflict in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies.

President Wilson had asked the U.S. Congress to approve the declaration of war by arguing that Europe needed America's help to ensure that democracy flourished in Russia and Germany. The protest signs carried by Paul, Burns, and the other women changed to reflect Wilson's words. "We women of America tell you that America is not a democracy," one of the leaflets put out by Paul's group read. "Twenty million women are denied the right to vote … Help us make this nation really free. Tell our government that it must liberate its people before it can claim free Russia as an ally."

Arrested once again

These wartime statements angered some who believed the suffragists should not be mocking the president or government during a time of war. Paul's Sentinels were jeered at and mocked, and then began to be arrested on charges of obstructing traffic. Lucy Burns was one of the first to be arrested, but the charges were dropped. In mid-July, sixteen were arrested, and the judge ordered sixty-day jail terms when it appeared the women had no intention of quitting the sidewalk protest. Wilson pardoned them, however, and they were released from the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. The protests continued over the summer and fall, as did the arrests.

Paul was arrested in October 1917 and given a seven-month sentence by the court. At the Occoquan Workhouse, she spent two weeks in solitary confinement. The conditions at the women's facility were horrible, and what little food the inmates received was infested with mealworms. Paul's health rapidly declined, and she was finally sent to the prison hospital wing. There, she went on a hunger strike, and others joined her in the protest. Prison officials warned her that they could easily send her to a psychiatric facility, which offered even more brutal conditions. As her health grew weaker, officials worried that she would die in custody. They decided to force-feed her and the others. This was done by inserting a rubber tube through the nose, and then down the throat and esophagus into the stomach.

Paul and the others resisted the force-feeding. On the night of November 15, 1917, Occoquan guards launched a vicious attack on the suffragists in their cells. The assault was ordered by the warden, and Lucy Burns had her hands chained to the bars of her cell, above her head, for hours. Others were dragged, kicked, punched, and tossed against furniture and walls. One of them, believing her cellmate had just died, suffered a heart attack.

Ten days later, all the Silent Sentinel inmates were released. Six weeks after that, on January 9, 1918, Wilson declared that he would support a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. It passed in the House, but failed in the Senate later that year. The Sentinels took up their protest again in the summer of 1918. As elections neared in November, Paul urged Americans to vote against the lawmakers who had not supported the amendment.

Finally, in May 1919 the suffrage amendment passed in the House; in June it passed in the Senate. Paul and her group turned their energies to making sure that the state legislatures ratified it. An amendment to the U.S. Constitution must be approved by Congress, but to become law it also must be approved by three-fourths of the states. Each state legislature debates and votes on whether to approve amendments to the Constitution. Fourteen months later, in August 1920, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to approve the amendment. American women cast their vote for president for the first time in the November election that year.

Author of Equal Rights Amendment

Although Paul had spent a decade of her life fighting for women's suffrage, her work did not end when the Nineteenth Amendment went into effect. Fair treatment for women in the world of economics was next, and this idea was spelled out in the Equal Rights Amendment, which Paul wrote. In 1923 she read it at a seventy-fifth anniversary celebration of the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. The Declaration, written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had been delivered at the first Woman's Rights Convention, which had occurred in Seneca Falls, New York. That convention is considered to be one of the pivotal moments in the women's suffrage movement in the United States.

Paul earned three law degrees and started another political organization, the World Party for Equal Rights for Women, which was sometimes referred to as the World Women's Party. She spent fifty years working to see the Equal Rights Amendment become law. In 1972 it passed in both houses of Congress and entered the state-ratification stage. There was heated debate over its merits during the next few years. But when Paul died on July 9, 1977, the amendment needed approval from just three more states. Two deadlines passed, and it failed to win the necessary majority and thus failed to become law.

A 2004 HBO film titled Iron-Jawed Angels starred Hilary Swank (1974–) as Paul. The movie dramatized the White House protest and Occoquan Workhouse hunger strike.

For More Information


Flexner, Eleanor. A Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1996.

Frost, Elizabeth, and Kathryn Cullen-DuPont. Women's Suffrage in America: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Lunardini, Christine A. From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights: Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party, 1910–1928. New York: New York University Press, 1986.

Raum, Elizabeth. Alice Paul. Chicago, IL: Heinemann Library, 2004.


Alice Paul Institute. (accessed on July 5, 2006).

Catt, Carrie Chapman. "Speech Before Congress" (1917). SoJustNet: A Documentary History of Social Justice. (accessed on July 5, 2006).

Paul, Alice

views updated May 21 2018

Alice Paul

BORN: January 11, 1885 • Moorestown, New Jersey

DIED: July 9, 1977 • Moorestown, New Jersey

American social activist, lawyer

Alice Stokes Paul was one of the foremost women's rights activists of the twentieth century who energized the movement for women's suffrage (the right to vote) and led the fight for an Equal Rights Amendment. Through aggressive protest strategies she learned while visiting England, Paul was instrumental in getting the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified in 1920, granting voting rights to women. She came close in obtaining ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) over a half century later in the 1970s. Her tireless work and dedication influenced many governmental policies and was a model for feminists worldwide.

"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."

A Quaker upbringing

Paul was born in January 1885 on a family farm near Moorestown, New Jersey, to a Quaker family. (Quakers are members of the Christian group Society of Friends, which is opposed to war, oathtaking, and rituals.) She was the oldest of four children. Her Quaker upbringing taught her nonviolence and toleration of others. It also taught that everyone should equally enjoy social justice, meaning that all citizens receive fair treatment and an equal opportunity to enjoy the benefits of society. She learned the values of honesty and service to others early in life.

Paul's father, William M. Paul, was a successful businessman. He founded and was president of the Burlington County Trust Company. William had descended from the noted Winthrop family, who were early leaders in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early seventeenth century. Her mother, Tacie Parry Paul, was a descendent of William Penn (1644–1718), founder of the Pennsylvania Colony and strong believer of religious tolerance. Tacie was one of the first women to attend prestigious Swarthmore College near Philadelphia. She was active in social causes and even took Alice with her to a suffrage (right to vote) meeting when Alice was just a child. Paul's father died of pneumonia in 1916 but left the family financially secure.

An eager student

Paul was always eager to learn and thrived in an academic environment throughout her life. At sixteen years of age in 1901, she graduated at the top of her class from Moorestown Friends School, a Quaker school. From there she attended Swarthmore, following in her mother's footsteps. Paul graduated with a degree in biology in 1905 and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa and Pi Gamma Mu honor societies.

During her senior year at Swarthmore, Paul's interests began to turn more toward political science and economics. A professor helped her obtain a College Settlement Association Fellowship to attend the New York School of Social Work, where she studied about how to best help others. From there she transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a master's degree in sociology.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Paul received a Quaker Fellowship to travel to Woodbridge, England, in the fall of 1907. There she took classes at the University of Birmingham while doing social casework in the community.

An introduction to the fight for suffrage

While studying in England, Paul met the daughter of noted British suffragist Emmeline Parkhurst (1858–1929). Inspired by Parkhurst's dedication to gaining the right to vote for women, Paul became active in the British suffrage movement. Paul took part in her first suffrage protest parade in 1908.

Parkhurst and others in Britain who formed the Women's Social and Political Union were more aggressive and confrontational in their protest activities than suffragists back in the United States. The British tactics often led to arrests. Paul was arrested three times for picketing and other means of protest and briefly jailed at the Halloway Prison. Her interest began shifting again from social work to the study of law. During this period, Paul met fellow American Lucy Burns (1879–1966), a graduate of Vassar College, at a London police station.

Back to the United States

In 1910, Paul returned to the United States and resumed graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Concentrating on law and women's rights, she received a doctorate in sociology in 1912. Her key topic of research interest was the legal status of women in society.

Paul's interest in women's suffrage continued. After completing her doctorate, she moved to Washington, D.C. At twenty-seven, she was ready to devote herself to the struggle for women's suffrage. She had joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) upon her return to the United States. NAWSA had been founded in 1890 by activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906). Suffragists in the United States were more focused on obtaining the right to vote on a state-by-state basis rather than nationally, as was the case with Parkhurst and her fellow activists in England. The American suffragists were experiencing only modest success, primarily in nine Western states. Wyoming was the first state to grant women the right to vote.

Paul sought to introduce the aggressive tactics used in Britain. However, most members resisted such militant measures, and friction within the organization grew. Meanwhile, Paul and Burns assumed leadership of NAWSA's congressional committee in 1912. They began campaigning for a Constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote nationally.

Seeking suffrage

With the election of Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21) as U.S. president in November 1912, Paul planned her first major protest event. On the day before Wilson's inauguration (swearing in) in Washington, D.C. on March 3, 1913, Paul led a massive suffrage parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the White House. More than eight thousand suffragists participated in the parade, while more than half a million bystanders gathered along the route. It attracted major media coverage for days. A few days later, members of NAWSA's congressional committee met with the new president to express their needs. However, Wilson and his Democratic Party that now controlled both houses of Congress remained noncommittal.

Despite Paul's success at organizing the Washington parade, friction within NAWSA remained high over her aggressive strategies. In the summer of 1914, Paul and Lucy finally broke from NAWSA and formed the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. With her Quaker background, Paul promoted aggressive—but nonviolent—tactics in an effort to make change at the national level through the proposed Constitutional amendment. The weekly publication Suffragist began circulation in November 1914. It covered Congressional Union activities. As in Britain, the American suffragists often faced jail time when arrested for disturbing the peace or unlawful assembly. The colors of the Congressional Union became a common sight around the nation's capital in signs and banners. In January 1915, the proposed Constitutional amendment finally made it to the House floor, where it was debated for six hours before failing in the resulting vote. In the election year of 1916, Paul merged the Congressional Union with the Woman's Party to form the National Women's Party (NWP).

The National Women's Party

Though NWP members were largely white, middle-class women, they had a strong will and willingness to face threats, arrest, and imprisonment. In January 1917, Paul organized picketing (a line of people holding banners or signs in front of a business or organization they are protesting the policies of) of the White House for the suffragist cause. Twelve women, who became known as the Silent Sentinels, held banners demanding the right to vote. It was the first known organized effort to picket the White House. By that time the United States was on the verge of entering World War I (1914–18), which had been raging since 1914 in Europe. Wilson finally declared war on Germany in April 1917. Paul argued that the United States could not morally fight for democracy abroad while denying half of its citizens the right to vote. The picketing at the White House continued for eighteen months. The women activists braved harsh winter conditions. The NWP protesters became a major topic of discussion in the city.

Many people accused Paul and other suffragists of treason (disloyalty) for protesting during a time of war. Police became more aggressive in confronting the suffragists. In June, they began arresting the suffragists on charges of obstructing traffic. Burns and almost thirty others were the first arrested. Almost half of them were sentenced to sixty days at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. Like other prisons at the time, the workhouse had dismal living conditions. The cells were dark, small, and unsanitary. Mealworms infested the food served to the inmates and guards regularly harassed and mistreated the inmates. These women were also beaten and endured forced feedings. Picketing continued despite the arrests. In August, a scuffle broke out, and for three days picketers were beaten and dragged about by angry crowds. Police did nothing, but stood by and watched.

By September 1917, Congress established committees in both houses to consider women's suffrage. Nonetheless, the protests continued, and Paul was arrested in October. She was sentenced to seven months in the Occoquan. Soon after arriving at the workhouse, Paul began a hunger strike to demand better conditions for what she termed political prisoners held there. In response, authorities moved her to the psychiatric ward and force-fed her by shoving tubes into her nose and down her throat.

Suffrage achieved

By later in November the suffragists were released from the workhouse. Finally, President Wilson relented under the constant pressure of Paul and her organization. In January 1918, Wilson announced his support for the suffrage Constitutional amendment. The picketing ceased. However, when the U.S. Senate failed to pass the bill so it could go to the states for ratification, Paul resumed the pickets. When forty-eight picketers were arrested, a public outcry led to their immediate release.

Success came the following year, when both houses passed the Constitutional amendment and it went to the states for ratification. Ratification came in 1920 when Paul was just thirty-five years old. The new Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution now guaranteed voting rights for women in the United States.

Following the success in achieving suffrage, Paul gave up her leadership position in the NWP. However, she remained a major influence as chair of the international relations committee and served on the executive committee. Paul returned to school once again and earned multiple law degrees, first from Washington College of Law in 1922. She followed that with a doctorate in law from American University in 1928.

Equal rights

Paul's next goal was to pass another Constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights to men and women. Paul wrote the first draft for the amendment, called the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA. It was first introduced into Congress in 1923.

The idea of equal rights for men and women was controversial among feminist leaders at the time. Whereas Paul wanted equal rights with no special favors, other feminists were fighting for special protections for women, such as in the workplace through special labor laws. But Paul stood firm for equal rights, not special accommodations. She also resisted linking her ERA campaign with the abortion rights efforts for fear of losing key support from the public.

A worldwide campaign

When the ERA failed to pass Congress, Paul turned to a worldwide effort. Through the 1920s and 1930s, she lobbied, or petitioned, through the League of Nations, an international organization created in 1919 to resolve disputes among nations and improve global welfare. Paul became active in various organizations. She served on the executive committee of Equal Rights International, an organization that sought an international equal rights treaty among nations. She also became chairperson of the Women's Research Foundation from 1927 until 1937. In 1938, Paul founded the World Party for Equal Rights for Women, otherwise known as World Women's Party. It was located in Geneva, Switzerland, at the headquarters of the League of Nations. Through this organization, she promoted increased political power of women worldwide.

Paul returned to the United States in 1941. She was elected chairman of the NWP once again where she continued promoting women's rights and the ERA. As she had earlier with the suffrage amendment, Paul began a long-standing effort to get the ERA passed. However, little progress could be seen for years.

With the outbreak of World War II (1939–45), women were needed in factories to replace the men who had gone into military service. Existing protective labor laws were suspended and an interest in equal rights between men and women increased. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress supported the Equal Rights Amendment and it was debated in Congress. However, it still did not pass. Other successes did come for Paul, as well as many other influential activists, following World War II. She was able to get gender equality included in the preamble (the introduction to a formal document) to the new United Nations (UN) charter. Created in 1946, the United Nations replaced the League of Nations as the key international organization to resolve problems around the world.

Following World War II, Paul saw the proposed ERA languish. Women achieved a major victory, however, when sex discrimination and equal rights in employment were added to the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. Passage of the act was largely driven by racial discrimination during the years leading up to its passage.

The ERA was repeatedly introduced in Congress, but to no avail. In 1972, it finally passed both houses of Congress and was sent to the states for ratification. The bill proceeded through the ratification process with intense lobbying by feminists in each state. In 1974, Paul suffered a stroke that left her disabled. Thirty-five states ratified the ERA by 1977. With only three more states needed to become a Constitutional amendment, Paul died of heart failure on July 9, 1977, in Moorestown. Although she died believing passage of the amendment was close at hand, the ERA was actually defeated (see box).

Equal Rights Amendment

Feminist Alice Paul was the driving force behind a prolonged effort that lasted through much of the twentieth century to establish a guarantee of equal rights for everyone under the law, regardless of gender. She pursued this goal through a proposed Constitutional amendment known as the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA. After 1923, the proposed amendment was introduced into Congress each year for almost a half century until it finally passed Congress in 1972. Every year until then it was blocked in congressional committees. Among opponents of the ERA were labor unions whose members feared competition for their jobs from women, conservatives who feared the ERA would bring a basic change to gender relations and traditional families in America, and even some feminists who favored special protections for women rather than full legal equality for men and women.

The 1972 version sent by Congress to the states for ratification was very brief, consisting of only three short sections. The main section, Section 1, stated, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged [reduced] by the United States or by any State on account of sex." According to the U.S. Constitution, the legislatures of three-fourths of the fifty states in the United States must vote approval for a proposed amendment to become legally ratified and part of the Constitution. Congress gave the states seven years to ratify the ERA. By the deadline in March 1979, thirty-five states had ratified the amendment, just three short of the necessary number. A controversial extension of three years to 1982 failed to bring in further state approvals.

Supporters of the ERA began reintroducing the proposed amendment in Congress every year again starting in 1982. However, overall support in Congress had slipped by then even though public polls consistently indicated the majority of the public favored adoption of the ERA. Nonetheless, politicians believed the ERA was no longer needed since court interpretation of many laws and constitutional provisions had greatly expanded the rights of women through the late twentieth century. In addition, many new job opportunities had opened for women in fields usually dominated by men including upper management positions in businesses.

Though the U.S. Constitution was never revised with the ERA, twenty states added ERA amendments to their state constitutions since 1879. These prohibited sex discrimination by those state governments.

The legacy of Paul's tireless efforts to erase gender prejudice and gain equal rights for women lived on. For example, in 2004 HBO Films broadcast a movie about Paul and other suffragists titled Iron Jawed Angels. In 2005, Swarthmore College named a newly built dormitory on campus in honor of Paul.

For More Information


Cott, Nancy F. The Grounding of Modern Feminism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

Lunardini, Christine A. From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights: Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party, 1910–1928. New York: New York University Press, 1986.

Raum, Elizabeth. Alice Paul. Chicago, IL: Heinemann Library, 2004.


The Alice Paul Institute. (accessed on December 11, 2006).

Library of Congress. "Women of Protest." American Memory. (accessed on December 11, 2006).

"Wilson—A Portrait: Women's Suffrage." Pbs. org American Experience. (accessed on December 11, 2006).

Alice Paul

views updated Jun 11 2018

Alice Paul

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. DuringWorld 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

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. □

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