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.
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.
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