Alice Paul – The Final Stretch for Women’s Suffrage

Alice Paul around 1901

During the second half of the 19th century, the two primary women’s suffrage organizations led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (National Woman Suffrage Association), and Lucy Stone (American Woman Suffrage Association) were working on two different approaches: a Constitutional Amendment, and state-by-state legislation giving women the vote. There was little progress on either front by the time the two organizations joined in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA.) By 1900, only four western states had given women full suffrage, and the Constitutional Amendment that Susan B. Anthony had championed was not the preferred approach of most of the women’s leaders. Introduced in 1872, it had only been brought up for a vote one time in 1878 in spite of the fact that Anthony and others addressed the House Committee every year. Although a few more states had given the women the vote when Alice Paul returned from her studies in England, she was convinced that the only way to proceed was to push for the Amendment, and she was determined to do her part.

Alice Stokes Paul was born January 11, 1885 to William and Tacie Paul. They were Hicksite Quakers who led simple lives and had a strong heritage of activism and education for women. William was the seventh generation descended from Philip Paul who fled religious persecution in England and established Paulsboro, New Jersey. Alice’s maternal great-grandfather, Charles Stokes, was active in politics and a supporter of abolitionist and women’s suffrage causes. Her maternal grandfather, William Parry, believing in educating women, established Swarthmore College as a co-educational experiment and Alice’s mother Tacie was one of its first female graduates.

Photograph. Britannica Online for Kids

William Paul was a banker and owned a modest working farm. Together they gave the family a comfortable life and provided Alice and her three siblings, Helen, Parry, and William, the opportunity for an excellent education. As a child, Alice read every book in the house as well as the school library, and when she entered Swarthmore in 1901, she studied biology because it was the one subject she hadn’t studied in school. Intellectual curiosity about a subject, however, didn’t make for a good major, so at the advice of a professor, she switched and graduated with a degree in social work.

Alice was definitely academically gifted and in spite of her family heritage, had no real intention of being an activist. No one else would have expected it of her either. On her return from England after getting involved with the British suffrage movement, her mother was quoted in the New York Times (Nov. 13, 1909) as saying, “I cannot understand how this all came about, Alice is such a mild-mannered girl.” But after graduation, Alice had taken a job in the New York College settlement house. She quickly came to the conclusion that she didn’t want to just work to alleviate the suffering of individuals; she wanted to work to change the conditions that led to their suffering. In order to work within the system and help change the social conditions that prevailed at the time, Alice decided to continue her academic career and enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania to study sociology.  She eventually received an MA and PhD through the University of Pennsylvania, and ultimately an LLB, LLM, and a Doctorate in Civil Law. But before completing these accomplishments, she took a “slight” detour into the real world of activism in England.

Her life-changing trip to England began in 1907 with a scholarship to Woodbrooke, a Friends institution in Birmingham. While there, she also became the first woman to enroll in the commerce department at the University of Birmingham to study economics. This is where she first heard Christabel Pankhurst speak about women’s suffrage. Christabel and her mother Emmeline Pankhurst weren’t in the business of asking men politely to give women the vote. For the previous two years, they had been agitating and getting arrested to raise awareness for the need for women’s suffrage. The press had dubbed them “suffragettes”, to distinguish them from the more “socially acceptable” suffragists, using the diminutive “ette” to insult them. Their motto was “Deeds, not Words” and they wore the suffragette badge with pride.

Alice was a petite, delicate even fragile looking woman. She said herself that she was “not very brave,” and had a fear of public speaking. Nevertheless, once she had been “converted to the cause” she met each fear and challenge. She began simply by marching with the women, but quickly took on other activities. She was a “newsie”, passing out the organization’s paper Votes for Women; she was promoted to street corner speaker; and she eventually was invited to participate in a march on the House of Commons. This invitation came with a warning that they might be arrested, and that she shouldn’t agree to participate unless she was willing to accept that consequence. She accepted.

The women in the Pankhurst organization, the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union), had been getting arrested for a couple of years at this point. They would ask to be treated as political prisoners. When this request was denied, they would often go on hunger strikes. This ultimately resulted in force feedings. It was a horrible procedure that consisted of being held or tied down and having a tube thrust into a nostril and down their throat. It was brutal and extremely painful.

When Alice was arrested and force fed, she asked her suffrage sisters not to release her name to the media, so as not to worry her mother, but the word got out and it served to greatly increase Tacie’s concern for her daughter. Eventually, Alice decided that she needed to return home, for the sake of her family and to finish her education. She may have underestimated her fame in the US. When she returned, she found that she was in great demand as a speaker, but she had other goals as well. She joined the National, as NAWSA was called, and became the chairman of its Congressional Committee.

Her first major task was to organize a parade in Washington, D.C. for March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration as President. The parade was her idea and she was completely responsible for organizing and raising funds. She contacted Lucy Burns, an American woman she had met during the protests in England, and formed a small committee. This was a monumental undertaking that deserves its own narrative, but suffice it to say that the city had never seen anything like it. She negotiated many controversies, disagreements, obstruction from authorities, and the press. Ultimately, women from all over the country and from all walks of life were represented. Wilson had tried to avoid the issue, but was privately against women’s suffrage. The parade made the statement in a big way that the issue and the women, were not going away.

At first Alice believed that the radical methods used in Britain would not be needed in America, but little progress was being made and she wanted to increase the pressure. There were disagreements about tactics within NAWSA, whose conservative leaders had always been a little wary of Alice, so she finally broke from them in 1916 and formed the National Woman’s Party (NWP.) Through the NWP, she began introducing some of the methods used by the Pankhursts. One of their goals was to shame President Wilson into supporting the suffrage movement. They picketed the White House over the next two years in all types of weather, amusing, confounding and finally angering the authorities. The picketers, including Alice, were arrested, incarcerated in workhouses, and force fed. At one point Alice was confined to a psychiatric ward, but the doctor would not be complicit; his report stated that she was perfectly sane.

The pressure finally worked. In January of 1918, President Wilson spoke to Congress and urged them to pass the Nineteenth Amendment for women’s suffrage. The rest as they say is history. In June of 1919, the Amendment passed both houses of Congress, and finally in August of 1920, it was ratified by the 36th state and signed into law on August 26, 1920.

Many women considered the fight over and resumed their lives, but Alice had a broader vision. She went on to write and campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. Unlike the people who originally wrote the suffrage amendment, Alice was alive to see the ERA pass the Congress in 1972. Unfortunately, only 35 of the required 38 states ratified the amendment before the deadline passed. After suffering a stroke in 1974, Alice Paul died in 1977. No other states ratified the ERA after her death.

I haven’t read all the sources about Alice Paul, but from what I have read, including reviews of other sources, not much has been said about her as a person, her personality, her leisure activities, etc. She doesn’t seem to have had close personal friends. There is an occasional mention of a male companion for dinner or a lecture, but no continuing relationships. Even her letters to and from Lucy Burns are started with “Miss Paul” and “Miss Burns.”  It could be that she was just very private about those aspects of her life, but I’m inclined to think that perhaps this quote from Alice herself explains it best.

“My feeling about our movement, you see, is that it is so pregnant with possibilities that it is worth sacrificing everything for, leisure, money, reputation and even our lives. I know that most people do not feel this way about it but since I do you can see that it cost me a pang to think of anyone abandoning suffrage for any other work.”
~ Alice Paul in a letter to someone preparing to leave the movement.

Resources
Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists by Jean H. Baker
A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot by Mary Walton

Visit the homepage of the Alice Paul Institute which was established in 1984 to “commemorate the centennial of Alice Paul’s 1885 birth and to further her legacy.” (Note: This does not imply any endorsement of me or my post by them, it’s just for your information.)

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25 thoughts on “Alice Paul – The Final Stretch for Women’s Suffrage

  1. Thanks.
    One would like to think that given time, suffrage would have come through a ‘natural progression’ of things and enlightenment. Sadly, I’m not sure it would have done – even with the improvements in communication we have now. I am often quietly shocked by the casual bigotry that comes out of the blue in conversation with people I meet – never quite sure whether a remark is meant in humour or seriousness – but why would a discriminatory remark come to mind? And if such thoughts do come to mind, how much would it take to stoke such feelings to resist further change in equality.
    Anyway, nice piece. I don’t always have a lot of time to read, and I certainly wouldn’t search out the subject areas of your blog, but the clear, precise and … fair…. style of your writing means I know I’m going to spend a few minutes well.

    • Stephen,
      I often wonder about people’s attitudes as well and what motivates them. Sometimes it seems that we make progress in one area only to digress. With regard to suffrage, I found myself wondering the same thing as I wrote this post. Would suffrage have happened eventually? Were the sacrifices that these women made necessary? I know some people find “rabble rousing” distasteful, but I’m not sure real change can happen without it. The more history I read, the more it seems that people are the same and that change for the better always has a price that must be paid by someone. Sadly.

      Thank you for your kind words about the blog. I try to be fair and see these women as people in the context of their time. I especially appreciate you taking the time to comment. There is so much content out there now, I’m glad to know you consider your time here well spent. :-)

    • Thanks Lisa. I hate to say it, but I had never heard of her until I started researching the movement. I enjoyed reading about her. Thanks for faithfully reading. I knew you took a break from your blog, but the summer is officially over isn’t it. I’ll drop by :-)

  2. Interesting article. In my memoir about my grandmother I tell about her voting for prohibition in Arizona in 1914. Elsie also went to lectures in Arizona about women’s suffrage, they were wanting her to speak because she had a letter written to her aunt by Susan B. Anthony. In 1918 when Elsie became a rural postmistress on Palomar Mountain in California she was only allowed to serve if her father held the position and she was assistant. This was because Virginia born Elsie lost her citizenship when she married a citizen of Wales in 1916. I have a lovely B&W photo that shows Elsie receiving the mail bag from her father in 1920 when she was granted back her citizenship. She loved to laugh about this story and told it to me many times.
    Barbara Anne Waite- author Memoir “Elsie- Adventures of an Arizona Schoolteacher 1913-1916″

    • Thanks for reading Barbara and for sharing your grandmother’s experience. Unfortunately, my grandparents all died when I was younger, before I started caring about these things. It’s wonderful that you were able to share her memories. Did you inherit the letter? :-) That would be a really cool piece of history to have, if not, I’m sure it’s still in the family. Thanks again for reading and taking the time to comment.

  3. Sadly the letter has been lost. Elsie had an aunt that was one of the first women with an important job in the bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington in the early 1900’s. Elsie visited public schools for years and shared her Susan B. Anthony letter and other historical gems she inherited from that aunt. I did inherit Elsie’s diary and Arizona letters and love of story telling.
    I treasure those.

    • I checked out your book Barbara. The reviews are great and it sounds like something I would really like to read. It’s on my wish list, sadly this is a really tight month. Hopefully soon, I can read it. Thanks again.

  4. Great post, thank you! I don’t think these things just happen eventually – there is always need for brave people who have the courage to differ and fight for their rights. Their achievements have to be remembered because once rights are taken for granted it becomes easier to lose them. I like to read your posts because they remind me of this.

    • I agree Nora. Human nature being what it is, there will always be people who want power. To get it they take power away from others. Just the fact that the Equal Rights Amendment wasn’t ratified in enough states to become law, is a recent reminder of that here in this country. As well as recent issues here where women are at risk of losing rights. Sigh. I am trying to do my little part. Thanks for reading as always and for the encouragement.

    • Nicole,
      Thank you so much for your kind words and acknowledgement. I don’t usually pass these on, but am honored that you thought of us. Congrats on your recognition and award, my fellow dulce de leche lover :-)

      • I totally understand…participation is mandatory. Just my way of saying I think highly of your blog.

        I probably wouldn’t pass them on either if this whole project weren’t so new. It’s all about promotion, you know.

  5. This was a good summary of an extraordinary life.
    I met Alice Paul on her 92nd birthday! I live and worked in her home town and she was in a Quaker nursing home at the time. She died that year, unfortunately without seeing the ERA passed, as we know. A group of us formed a non-profit organization to honor her centennial year in 1985. One of the honorees at the dinner was Sally Ride who had recently been the first woman in space. The Alice Paul Institute continues each year to honor women who have enhanced and promoted women’s rights.
    The group continued life as a supporter of women’s history and the ERA and went on to buy her family homestead. Today Paulsdale is the home of the Alice Paul Institute which continues to encourage people to study women’s history, but also is a leadership training center for girls. Find out more about their work at AlicePaulInstitute.org.

    • Jean,
      Thank you for commenting. It is difficult to summarize such a remarkable and long life in so few words. That is wonderful that you were able to meet her before she died. I actually follow the Alice Paul Institute on Facebook and have visited their website. Thank you for the reminder. I’ll add their site to the post above. Thanks again for reading and taking the time to comment.

  6. Alice had the opportunity to be around others who were pationate about what they felt was right and wrong. It was the small circles women formed in those days to form power through organizations and charities. They proved through thier activism that women were just as equally capable of having a voice in the future of the United States as men were. They opened doors for womens’ futures and paved ways for opportunities, reserved for men, with their hard work and dedication to their cause.

    • Well said! What type of history did you study? Is there a blog in your future :-) If so, I hope you’ll let me know so that I can follow. I love learning new things too. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment!

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