Paul, Alice (1885–1977)

views updated

Paul, Alice (1885–1977)

Relentless women's rights activist who led the final push for suffrage and wrote the Equal Rights Amendment. Born Alice Paul on January 11, 1885, in Moorestown, New Jersey; died of heart failure at home in Moorestown on July 9, 1977; daughter of William Mickle Paul (a banker and businessman) and Tacie Parry Paul; attended Quaker schools in Moorestown; Swarthmore College, B.S. in biology, 1905; University of Pennsylvania, M.A. in sociology, 1907; University of Pennsylvania, Ph.D. in sociology, 1912; Washington College, LL.B., 1922; American University, LL.M., 1927; American University, D.C.L., 1928; never married.

Studied and served as a social worker in England (1906–10), where she joined the Women's Social and Political Union; returned to U.S. to found the Congressional Union and National Woman's Party which utilized militant, flamboyant civil disobedience tactics to dramatize the suffrage cause; wrote the Equal Rights Amendment (1923) and worked the rest of her life to remove all legal restrictions on women's rights.

On October 20, 1917, Alice Paul was arrested at the west gate of the White House for picketing. She carried a banner that read: "The time has come to conquer or submit. For us there can be but one choice. We have made it." Taken from the District Police Court to the D.C. jail, having received a seven-month sentence for obstructing traffic, Paul was placed in solitary confinement. Immediately, she initiated a hunger strike that lasted over three weeks. Since Paul served as the National Woman's Party's undisputed leader, prison authorities tried to discredit her by characterizing the zealous suffragist as insane, even moving her to a "psychopathic" ward and depriving her of sleep. Moreover, Paul was brutally force-fed. Ultimately, however, the psychologists brought in to testify to her "persecution complex" could not help the government. As one physician reported, Alice Paul has "a spirit like Joan of Arc , and it is useless to try to change it. She will die but she will never give up."

Born on January 11, 1885, in Moorestown, New Jersey, Alice Paul grew up in an affluent Quaker household. Both parents were descended from principal founders of English American colonies. Her father William M. Paul was a descendant of William Penn, Jr., while her mother Tacie Parry Paul could trace her bloodline back to John Winthrop. Alice would be the first of four children; she had two brothers, William, Jr., and Parry, and a sister, Helen .

The Paul siblings grew up in a pleasant family environment where an unwavering dedication to scholarship and service prevailed. President of the Burlington County Trust Company, William also invested in a number of successful business ventures and owned a farm. Tacie served as clerk of the Friends Meeting House in Moorestown, a small community nine miles east of Philadelphia. Alice attended the Quaker school there. She loved to read, especially the classics, and particularly the novels of Charles Dickens. Shy and modest, Paul was a serious student and cared little for frivolous pursuits of any sort.

Like a number of other women's rights leaders, such as Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott , and Abby Kelley , Alice Paul was prepared by her Quaker education and religious training for a life of service and a firm commitment to progressive ideas. Within the Society of Friends, women served in various leadership positions and enjoyed equality, in theory and often in practice, with men. But Quakers also accepted notions of gender separatism, such as the tradition of separate business meetings for women, which fostered independent thinking and action free of male influence. When asked by Robert S. Gallagher in 1972 about her interest in women's suffrage, Paul replied, "It wasn't something I had to think about" as a member of the Society of Friends. Since equality of the sexes was always "one of their principles," Paul "never had any other idea."

Alice Paul's maternal grandfather had been one of the founders of Swarthmore College and Tacie attended this institution before marrying William, though she did not graduate. Alice, too, would enroll at Swarthmore when she was 16. Shortly afterward, while she was away at school, her father contracted pneumonia and died suddenly. Paul dealt with her tragic loss, it seems, by devoting all her energies to Swarthmore. Not only did she succeed as a student, but as an athlete. Though slender and gentle, she joined the girls' basketball team and class field hockey team. She took third in the women's tennis tournament. She chose to major in biology, though she had limited interest and less background in the field. She simply wanted to face the challenge of studying something new. As it turned out, she found herself drawn to political science, sociology, and economics, and following graduation in 1905, accepted a College Settlement Association fellowship at the New York School of Philanthropy. In 1907, she earned her master's degree in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, with minor fields in political science and economics.

Having earned a scholarship to study social work, in the fall of 1907 Paul traveled to England to train at the Woodbrooke Settlement for Social Work. She attended the University of Birmingham as part of this arrangement, and while there went to hear Christabel Pankhurst speak. As other students shouted down the radical suffragist, Paul was intrigued by Pankhurst's message. Christabel's father Richard Marsden Pankhurst, one of the founders of the British Labour Party, had advocated women's suffrage. After his death, his widow, Emmeline Pankhurst , and daughters, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst , broke with the Labour Party to form the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Influenced by labor unions and Irish revolutionaries, the WSPU turned toward militant tactics designed to generate publicity for the cause. The "suffragettes" (the term used by the London Daily Mail to differentiate the WSPU from other suffragists) disrupted political meetings to provoke violent reprisals from police and jailings. Targeting the party in power, the Liberals, they resorted to hunger strikes in prison. These widely publicized strikes prompted the government to forcibly feed the activist women.

In 1908, Alice Paul moved to London to study sociology and economics at the London School of Economics. She also accepted a position as the assistant secretary to the Dalston branch of the Charity Organization Society in London, then worked for the Peel Institute of Social Work at Clerkenwell and the Christian Social Union Settlement of Hoxton. She began attending WSPU meetings in London, though she also prepared to return home. Just before her scheduled departure, Paul agreed to accompany about 100 women on a march to Parliament. She did not anticipate any problem, since the deputation was led by Emmeline Pankhurst, but the group was arrested at the entrance to Parliament and taken to the Cannon Row Police Station where Alice faced charges.

She received no jail time for this first offense, but the incident was one of the most important in her life. While at the police station, she saw a protester with an American flag pin on her coat and struck up a conversation. Lucy Burns would become her closest associate and

friend for many years. Like Alice, Lucy was bright, well educated, and committed strongly to social justice issues. She graduated from Vassar in 1902, then studied at Yale University, the University of Berlin, and the University of Bonn. She was in London on vacation from school when she first became involved in the Social and Political Union. The arrest was also her first.

After the government dropped the case, WSPU leaders asked Paul to go to Norwich to "rouse the town" in preparation for a planned visit and speech by Winston Churchill. She organized nightly meetings in the marketplace where she called on the citizens to demand that Churchill provide his views on wome. Then, while he spoke, she participated in an anti-government meeting outside the hall, and police arrested her. As in the first demonstration, she experienced no jail time. However, her next assignment reunited Alice with Lucy Burns, and earned the two women their first trip to prison. They protested at Limehouse in London during a David Lloyd George meeting and received two-week sentences. After conducting a five-day hunger strike, they were released.

Paul continued her efforts on behalf of the WSPU until the end of 1909. She traveled to Scotland, where she received a ten-day jail sentence for holding a street meeting in Dundee while Churchill spoke. She was released after a four-day hunger strike. Then in December, Paul and Burns were asked to disrupt the Lord Mayor's banquet at Guildhall. Alice went into the hall early in the morning and waited secretly in the gallery all day. Lucy entered the hall below with the guests. After disturbing the meeting, they were arrested and sentenced to 30 days in Holloway Jail and immediately initiated hunger strikes. This time, prison authorities force-fed the two suffragists. This would be Paul's last experience with British jails, as she sailed for America in January 1910. Lucy Burns remained abroad for two more years.

Paul's health suffered considerably from her prison experiences, especially the hunger strikes. Always thin and frail looking, she appeared emaciated upon her return to the United States. However, she immediately resumed her studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Having written her Ph.D. dissertation on women's legal status in Pennsylvania, she received her doctorate in sociology in 1912. While completing her studies, Alice organized street meetings in Philadelphia promoting women's suffrage, patterned after British protests. She spoke to various suffrage groups about the radical British tactics she knew firsthand and looked forward to devoting more time and energy to the cause.

When Lucy Burns returned to her home in Brooklyn in the summer of 1912, Alice visited her there. The two discussed how they could best use their abilities and experiences to further the suffrage cause in the United States and decided to join forces to work toward the passage of a constitutional amendment by direct lobbying in Washington, D.C. They then approached National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) leaders with this idea, including president Anna Howard Shaw , who ultimately gave the idea her blessing. Also present during the first meetings with NAWSA were Harriet Stanton Blatch and Mary Ware Dennett . Blatch, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton , had lived in England for 20 years and appreciated the direct-action techniques of the WSPU. She had founded the Women's Political Union in New York in 1907, which modeled some of its activities after British efforts, and she liked what Paul had to say. Dennett, the organization's corresponding secretary, also saw the value of generating more publicity. The matter was referred to the National Board of NAWSA through Jane Addams , and Lucy Burns and Alice Paul were allowed to take over the moribund Congressional Committee in Washington, which for years had existed merely on paper.

Burns and Paul moved to Washington in December 1912 to bring life to the Congressional Committee. It would not be an easy task. There was no office, no budget, and few supporters. As Paul noted in an interview that appeared in American Heritage in 1974, NAWSA leaders "didn't take [our] work seriously; or they wouldn't have entrusted it to us, two young girls." They rented a basement room at 1420 F Street and began asking local suffragists to volunteer time to the effort, and to provide funds, if possible. Paul usually did the asking herself, in a direct manner devoid of any emotion or small talk. It seems few people could say no to the sincere, selfless activist. By the end of 1913, the office had grown to ten rooms and often bustled with the activities of volunteers. Alice herself devoted all her energy—literally every waking hour—to the suffrage movement.

Three women joined Paul and Burns on the Congressional Committee and would provide essential leadership. They included Crystal Eastman , the talented social betterment lawyer from New York; Mary Ritter Beard , the historian and women's rights activist who also enjoyed some first-hand experience in the British suffrage campaign; and Dora Lewis of Philadelphia, a woman of some wealth. The leaders of the Congressional Committee decided to begin their work by planning a demonstration for March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. The procession of about 8,000 women started at the Capitol and began its march up Pennsylvania Avenue past the White House to gather at the Daughters of the American Revolution's Constitution Hall. Huge crowds in Washington for the inauguration witnessed the parade, and some chose to verbally harass the marchers while police stood by and watched. The crowd was so large—some newspapers estimated it at half a million—that the marchers could barely make their way down Pennsylvania Avenue. Secretary of War Henry Stimson ultimately summoned troops from Fort Myer to restore order and get the suffragists to their destination, which took six hours.

Woodrow Wilson arrived in Washington during the suffrage procession, and as he made his way to his hotel, he asked his driver, "Where are all the people?" The man replied, "Over on the Avenue watching the Suffrage Parade." Alice Paul had achieved more than she expected with this first planned event. It remained in the news for weeks as politicians demanded an investigation of police practices in Washington. The district chief of police lost his job while the Senate conducted a lengthy investigation. Though there were no significant acts of physical violence against the women, the rude comments of many bystanders received a great deal of attention.

The publicity generated by the parade opened the door for the Congressional Committee to demand quick action on a federal suffrage amendment. Paul liked the public exposure, but her major concern was lobbying members of Congress, and pressuring Wilson himself. The very first deputation of suffragists to meet with the president visited the White House on March 17 and was led by Alice Paul. Two more deputations talked with Wilson before the end of the month. The president proved cordial and acted mildly interested in the cause, but feigned ignorance on the subject and talked about the time not being right to address the issue.

Many members of Congress were equally evasive or apathetic. Thus, the Congressional Committee planned another demonstration to coincide with the opening day of the new Congress, April 7. Representatives of all 435 congressional districts brought petitions favoring the suffrage amendment to Washington, and then a procession marched to the Capitol. Welcomed by pro-suffrage congressmen, the suffragists were escorted to the gallery, where they witnessed the introduction of the Mondell-Chamberlain Amendment. This really represented the reintroduction of the Anthony Amendment of 1878 under the name of new congressional sponsors. It asked that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall nor be denied or abridged by any State on account of sex."

Following the two organized demonstrations, Alice Paul recognized the need to extend the lobbying activities of the Congressional Committee, to expand the work beyond the five women who constituted the committee. The result was the formation of the Congressional Union (CU), an organization sanctioned by NAWSA committed to securing the federal amendment. As it quickly grew, it was accepted as an auxiliary to NAWSA, and the Congressional Committee came to serve as its executive board. Pressure on members of Congress continued with greater force, and by June 1913, the Senate Committee on Women's Suffrage reported favorably on the amendment. As the CU and NAWSA organized petition drives, hearings, and other events, the Senate prepared for the first debate on the suffrage issue since 1887.

[Alice Paul has] a spirit like Joan of Arc, and it is useless to try to change it. She will die, but she will never give up.

—Physician's report to prison officials, 1917

In 1914, the Congressional Union broke away from the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Some of the differences between NAWSA and the CU were simply financial, having to do with the status of the CU as a NAWSA auxiliary. However, the conflict ran deeper than this. At the annual NAWSA convention in 1913, Alice Paul and her colleagues in the Congressional Union called for an immediate, all-out campaign to pass the federal amendment. NAWSA leaders such as Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt wished to focus on state referendums, and they won the argument at the convention. Faced with making a choice between heading the Congressional Committee or the new Congressional Union, which NAWSA leaders demanded of Paul, she chose the latter. Paul, Burns, and those working with them drifted away from NAWSA, a shift that became more pronounced as 1914 progressed.

First, Paul and Burns, drawing upon their experiences in England, decided that holding the "party in power" responsible for failure to pass the amendment would add a new dynamic to partisan politics. The Congressional Union began to campaign against Democrats, who held the presidency and enjoyed a congressional majority, regardless of individual stands on the suffrage issue. NAWSA leaders condemned the policy as inappropriate for the American political system, since there were pro-suffrage politicians on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Second, on March 2 a new suffrage amendment was introduced in Congress, the Shafroth-Palmer amendment. Endorsed by NAWSA, this measure would require that every state hold a referendum on women's suffrage if 8% of voters signed an initiative petition. The CU, however, stood opposed to this focus on state-by-state action.

During the election campaign of 1914, the Congressional Union targeted Democratic candidates for Congress from the nine western states where women enjoyed the right to vote. Only 19 of 45 Democrats won, and some that did prevailed by slim majorities. The clout of the CU was on the rise, while NAWSA foundered. Dramatic activities garnered headlines for Alice Paul and her small group, but no one seemed to be paying attention to the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The CU also continued its lobbying efforts among congressmen as they looked forward to a House vote on the suffrage amendment, which took place in early 1915 (the Senate had voted 35 to 34 against the amendment in early 1914). The measure lost 204 to 174, but the event commanded a great deal of attention, thanks in great measure to the CU.

As the Congressional Union continued its pressure on politicians in 1916, much of the organization's attention was directed to the presidential campaign. When it met in June, the CU created the National Woman's Party (NWP) for the states where women voted. From this point until March of 1917, Paul's group used the Congressional Union name for members who lacked the vote, while the "Women's Party" referred to Western states' branches. After March 2, 1917, they simply called themselves the Woman's Party. The group opposed Wilson as the Democratic leader and because he refused to endorse the suffrage amendment. Other issues swept Wilson into office in 1916, and as the nation moved toward war in early 1917 the president announced that he would receive no further suffrage deputations. At this point, Alice Paul made a controversial decision—the Congressional Union would picket the White House every day.

On January 10, 1917, at ten in the morning, twelve members of the CU took up positions in front of the east and west gates of the White House. They carried purple, white, and gold banners, bearing the colors of the CU and Woman's Party, including one that asked, "Mr. President, what will you do for suffrage?" The women marched in a slow, square movement, holding the banners for passers-by to see. For the next 18 months, over 1,000 women from all over the country participated. They picketed day and night, in summer and winter, on every day of the week except Sundays. Though president of the Woman's Party, Alice Paul took her turn picketing like everyone else.

After the declaration of war against Germany, confrontations with bystanders at the site of the picketing became frequent. On June 20, when a Russian mission representing the Kerensky government arrived at the White House, banners were ripped from the hands of WP members and destroyed. A crowd rushed the pickets, forcing the police to intervene to protect the marchers. The next day, the Washington chief of police informed Alice Paul that picketing must stop or the suffragists would be arrested. On the morning of June 22, dozens of policemen took up positions outside Woman's Party headquarters. However, Lucy Burns and two other women slipped out and made their way to the east gate of the White House. After a few minutes, they were arrested and taken to the police station. As more and more women faced arrest in subsequent days, no one was actually charged. But then six Woman's Party members went to trial in police court on June 27. Found guilty of "obstructing the highway," they received three-day sentences. They would be the first of 97 suffragists to go to jail, as the CU continued to employ non-violent civil disobedience tactics.

Alice Paul battled ill health in the summer of 1917 and did not picket. But on October 20, she was arrested for obstructing traffic and sentenced to seven months in the District of Columbia prison. Placed in solitary confinement, she went on a hunger strike immediately, which lasted 22 days. During the last week, authorities forcibly fed the Woman's Party president using tubing placed into her nose. She was moved to the hospital and ultimately to a "psychopathic ward." Her lawyer, whom she was not allowed to see, got her removed back to the hospital, where the force-feeding continued. Undaunted by the force-feeding, the isolation, the attempts to paint her as insane, and other horrors of life as a prisoner, Alice Paul stood firm. Fearful that Paul or others of the suffragists would fall gravely ill or die, and under great pressure from mounting public sentiment, the government released all the women from jail on November 27 and 28. Later, the D.C. Court of Appeals overturned all the convictions.

The picketers were released from jail a week before Congress convened. The House quickly set a date, January 10, to vote on the Anthony Amendment. Woodrow Wilson spoke favorably of women's suffrage in his message to Congress, then came out in favor of the amendment on January 9. The next day, the House voted for it, 274–136, which achieved the necessary two-thirds vote. The Senate delayed until October, however, when the measure failed by two votes to win passage. During the months between the votes in Congress, Alice Paul, the architect of Woman's Party tactics, employed some new stunts designed to pressure political leaders by keeping the issue of suffrage on the front page of newspapers. They burned the speeches of Wilson at public monuments, because they believed he made too little effort to secure passage of the Anthony amendment. They burned "watchfires" in front of the White House, Senate, and other federal sites. Hundreds more picketers faced arrest, and most conducted hunger strikes during their brief incarcerations. Alice Paul was arrested a few times for her involvement in protests, often enduring very rough handling by police. After the two-vote loss, the NWP worked to defeat anti-suffrage senators up for election in the fall.

The National Woman's Party, and the revitalized National American Woman Suffrage Association under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, played a major role in the election of 1918, and most new members of Congress were pro-suffrage. The House reaffirmed its vote of 1918 with a resounding 304 to 89 vote, then on June 4, 1919, the Senate acted. Though the vote was close, Alice Paul watched from the gallery as the amendment prevailed with the necessary 66 "ayes." The NWP knew they had won even before the roll call, and there was little excitement. They immediately turned their attention to the ratification vote in the states, which was secured when the Tennessee House voted in favor on August 18.

When asked later, Alice Paul did not recall celebrating the final victory of women's suffrage; rather, she set to work closing up the headquarters and paying off debts. But the Woman's Party did not disband, instead turning its attention to the broader question of women's rights. A large NWP convention met in February 1921 whose agenda was controlled rather firmly by Paul. The delegates endorsed her program to "remove all remaining forms of the subjection of women" through the passage of an amendment ending gender discrimination. After two years full of debate and legal consultations, Alice Paul penned the simple line that became the Equal Rights Amendment. Announced publicly at the site of the first great women's convention of 1848, Seneca Falls, the ERA stated simply: "Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction."

When Paul and the WP first proposed the ERA in the 1920s, they had few allies. The Women's Trade Union League, League of Women Voters (the successor of NAWSA), General Federation of Women's Clubs, U.S. Women's Bureau, and the two major political parties opposed it. Moreover, the NWP made little headway before World War II.

Alice Paul believed that she would be better equipped to champion the cause of women's rights if she were trained thoroughly in law. Thus, she earned three law degrees during the 1920s: an LL.B. from Washington College of Law (1922) and an LL.M. (1927) and D.C.L. (1928) from American University. She returned to Europe as chair of the Woman's Research Federation (1927–37), where she founded the World Women's Party. In Geneva in the 1930s, she lobbied the League of Nations on women's rights issues. Paul served on the Women's Consultative Committee on Nationality of the League and as a board member of the Equal Rights International. She returned to the United States in 1941 to work for the Equal Rights Amendment, which both major parties endorsed in 1944. Paul chaired the NWP beginning in 1942.

Upon Paul's return to the U.S., she moved in with her sister Helen, and, later, with activist Elsie Hill , her closest friend. Totally committed to various causes, Paul never married. After the late 1960s, and Hill's death, she lived alone in Ridge-field, Connecticut. Paul protested at rallies for women's rights and against the Vietnam War while in her 80s. She would witness the passage of the ERA by Congress in 1972 and subsequently worked for its ratification. In 1972, she met with historian Robert S. Gallagher, and the interview appeared in the February 1974 issue of American Heritage. She responded to dozens of questions frankly and intelligently. But what stands out the most about her answers are two personal qualities: absolute modesty and a tendency to care little about the past. When asked how she assessed her own contributions to women's rights, she consistently minimized her role. "Each of us puts in a little stone," she remarked about activists, "and then you get a great mosaic at the end."

Alice Paul suffered a stroke in 1974 which left her permanently disabled. She died on July 9, 1977. Unique among American political activists in her single-minded devotion to women's rights, Paul lived her long life in the best Quaker tradition, zealously devoted to service.


Gallagher, Robert S., "'I Was Arrested Of Course…': An Interview With Miss Alice Paul," in American Heritage. Vol. 25. February 1974, pp. 16–24, 92–94.

Irwin, Inez Haynes. Up Hill With Banners Flying. Washington, DC: The National Woman's Party, 1964.

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

suggested reading:

Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States. NY: Atheneum, 1968.

Scott, Anne Firor, and Andrew MacKay Scott. One Half the People: The Fight for Woman Suffrage. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1975.


The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, has a small collection of Paul papers. The National Woman's Party in Washington holds many papers on Paul, which have been duplicated by the Microfilm Corporation of America.

John M. M. , Professor of History, Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, and author of Lucia Ames Mead and the American Peace Movement

About this article

Paul, Alice (1885–1977)

Updated About content Print Article