Alice Stokes Paul

Who was Alice Paul?

Feminist. Suffragist. Political Strategist.

Alice Paul was the architect of some of the most outstanding political achievements on behalf of women in the 20th century. Born on January 11, 1885 to Quaker parents in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, Alice Paul dedicated her life to the single cause of securing equal rights for all. 

A leader in the fight to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920 to extend voting rights to women, Alice Paul authored the Equal Rights Amendment 1923 and spent the rest of her life fighting for its ratification to ensure the U.S. Constitution protects women and men equally.

Few individuals have had as much impact on American history as has Alice Paul. Her life symbolizes the long struggle for justice in the United States and around the world. Her vision was the ordinary notion that women and men should be equal partners in society.

“When you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row.”

– Alice Paul, recalling her mother’s advice

Early Life

Alice Paul’s parents, William and Tacie Paul, were married in 1881 and purchased a 265-acre farm, later dubbed Paulsdale, in 1883. They welcomed the birth of their first child, Alice, in 1885. She was later joined by three siblings:  William (1886), Helen (1889), and Parry (1895). 

Alice’s father William was a president of the Burlington County Trust Company in nearby Moorestown. He earned a comfortable living, which supported Paulsdale’s success as a “gentleman’s farm.” Family members were responsible for some farm tasks, but hired hands provided the majority of the labor.

Alice’s childhood years on the “home farm,” as she often referred to Paulsdale in her adulthood, created a foundation for her lifelong civil rights work. William and Tacie Paul were Hicksite Quakers, and raised their children with their faith’s belief in gender equality. They also impressed upon their four children that they each had a duty to work for the betterment of society.

The Pauls stressed the importance of avoiding materialistic pursuits and staying connected to nature, an ideal reflected in the farm and their home. A beautiful but simple farmhouse, Paulsdale had a large wraparound porch that overlooked the farmyard. From that vantagepoint, the Pauls could survey the barn, hen house, icehouse, and several peach orchards.

Despite their relative wealth, the Paul family lived simply, in accordance with their Quaker practice. The values of industry and perseverance, two lessons critical to Alice Paul’s later success, were instilled in Alice and her siblings during their childhood, likely through light domestic and agricultural responsibilities on the farm. Inside the home, Irish maids and hired hands carried out the most arduous tasks, which allowed Alice and her siblings to enjoy leisure activities such as playing tennis on Paulsdale’s court, reading under the shade of the massive Copper Beech tree, and watching goldfish swim in the pond.

“When the Quakers were founded…one of their principles was and is equality of the sexes. So I never had any other idea…the principle was always there.”

– Alice Paul, 1974 interview

Education

Raised in an area founded by her Quaker ancestors, Alice and her family remained devoted observers of the faith. As Hicksite Friends, the Paul family adhered to Quaker traditions of simplicity and plain speech (replacing you and yours with “thee” and “thy” when talking with other Quakers). Alice attended a Hicksite school in Moorestown, New Jersey, and graduated first in her class in 1901. Hicksite Friends endorsed the concept of gender equality as a central tenet of their religion and a societal norm of Quaker life. As Paul noted years later, “When the Quakers were founded…one of their principles was and is equality of the sexes. So I never had any other idea…the principle was always there.” Growing up among Quakers, who believed men and women were equal, meant Alice’s childhood environment was something of an anomaly for the time period. This upbringing undoubtedly accounts for the many Quaker suffragists including Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott, both whom Paul admired and considered role-models. Alice’s faith not only established the foundation for her belief in equality but also provided a rich legacy of activism and service to country.

Alice Paul attended a Quaker school in nearby Moorestown. She graduated first in her class in 1901. As Paul said years later, “When the Quakers were founded…one of their principles was, and is, equality of the sexes. So I never had any other idea…the principle was always there.” The Quaker belief that women and men were equal, something of an anomaly for the time period, undoubtedly accounts for the number of Quakers active in the fight for suffrage. Both Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott, leaders of the early suffrage movement, were Quakers whom Paul admired and considered role-models.

Alice Paul enrolled at Swarthmore College, a co-educational school co-founded by her maternal grandfather, Judge William Parry, in 1864. Parry believed that women and men should receive an equal, Quaker-inspired education. Parry had sent his youngest and only daughter, Tacie, to study at Swarthmore in 1878. Tacie completed three years at the Quaker college, but had to leave in 1881, one year short of graduation, upon her marriage to William Paul. At that time married women were not allowed to attend the school. Years later, as a parent, Tacie ensured that each of her children attended.

During her years at Swarthmore, Alice Paul was taught by some of the leading female academics of the time, including mathematics professor Susan Cunningham, one of the first women admitted to the American Mathematics Associate. Alice was also an active and civically engaged student. She served as a member of the Executive Board of Student Government, was named Ivy Poetess, and spoke at her commencement ceremony. She also participated in a variety of sports including field hockey, tennis and basketball. In her college yearbook, HalcyonAlice Paul was dubbed, “An open-hearted maiden, true and pure.”

Upon graduation she did not know exactly what lay ahead for herself professionally, but she did believe she would make a positive contribution to society. Her father hinted at Alice’s resilient and advocate spirit in this statement about his eldest daughter, “Well, when there is a job to be done, I bank on Alice.”

 After a short return to Paulsdale, Alice Paul relocated to New York, New York to work in the settlement movement and pursue instruction in the fledgling field of social work. At the New York School of Philanthropy, Alice attended lectures and worked with people in the field to improve the lives of others. Her work experiences highlighted for her the economic and gender disparities present in society, inspiring her to pursue the study of economics overseas.

Alice Paul in England

In 1907 Paul left New York and moved to Birmingham, England to continue social work at the Woodbrooke Settlement. Although Alice’s upbringing was steeped in the ideals of suffrage and equality, it was her time in England that transformed her from a reserved Quaker girl into a militant suffragist. 

One day Alice stopped to observe a crowd loudly heckling a woman speaking in support of extending voting rights to women in Britain. The woman was Christabel Pankhurst, daughter of England’s most radical suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst. Jeered so loudly that she could no longer be heard, Pankhurst was forced from the stage by the unruly crowd. Appalled at the crowd’s behavior, Alice made her way over to the woman and introduced herself to Christabel. 

NAWSA and the president

Paul returned to the United States imbued with the radicalism of the English suffrage movement and a determination to reshape and re-energize the American campaign for women’s enfranchisement. While studying at the University of Pennsylvania, she joined the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), one of the leading national organizations working for women’s suffrage. Quickly appointed to lead the Congressional Committee, Paul took charge of working for a federal suffrage amendment, which at that time was a secondary goal of NAWSA’s leadership which prioritized enfranchisement state by state. 

In 1912, Alice Paul joined her NAWSA colleagues Lucy Burns and Crystal Eastman in a move to Washington, D.C. With little funding and in true Pankhurst style, Paul and Burns quickly got to work organizing a publicity event guaranteed to gain maximum national attention. The well-matched pair designed a massive and elaborate parade for thousands of women to march up Pennsylvania Avenue on March 3, 1913, the day prior to the inaugural parade of President-elect Woodrow Wilson.

The suffrage procession was led along the parade route by Inez Milholland, a lawyer, activist, and socialite devoted to the cause. Symbolically dressed in Greek robes and astride a white horse, Millholland and the suffragists quickly found the parade route lined with hundreds of male onlookers who were not supportive of their cause. The parade made it only a few blocks before the crowd began to attack the suffragists, first by shouting insults and obscenities, and then with physical violence and assault, all while police officers stood by and watched.

The melee made headlines in newspapers across the country the following day, and women’s suffrage became a popular topic of discussion among politicians and the general public alike.

National Woman's Party, Picketing & Prison

Although both NAWSA’s president Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul shared the goal of universal suffrage, their political strategies greatly differed. Where NAWSA concentrated a majority of its effort upon state campaigns, Paul wanted to focus all energy and funding to advance a constitutional amendment.  While NAWSA endorsed President Wilson and looked to members of the Democratic Party as allies, Alice Paul, in a nod to her training in Britain with the Pankhursts, wanted to hold Wilson and the Democrat party responsible for women’s continued disenfranchisement.

The divergent strategies led to tension between Alice Paul and NAWSA leadership and In 1914, after initially forming a semi-autonomous group called the Congressional Union, Paul and those who supported the strategy for a constitutional amendment severed  ties to NAWSA. Two years later, in 1916, Paul and her supporters formed a new party, the National Woman’s Party (NWP). The NWP moved quickly to organize public events to bring attention to their work. In 1917, the NWP organized the first public picketing in front of the White House in the nation’s history. Until that moment, no one had dared to publicly protest the President of the United States in such a manner.

Called the “Silent Sentinels” because they stood quietly, not speaking or interacting with passerbys, groups of women stood outside the gates of the White House, six days per week no matter the weather. In their non-violent protest, the suffragists held hand-crafted banners inscribed with incendiary phrases directed toward President Wilson. The banners asked, “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” and often quoted phrases spoken by President Wilson himself about liberty and democracy. Initially, President Wilson treated the picketers with bemused condescension, tipping his hat to them as he passed by. His attitude changed when the United States entered World War I in 1917.

As the war effort escalated and calls for unity and patriotism spread across the nation, few believed the suffragists would dare picket a wartime president. Nevertheless, Alice Paul was determined to not lose the momentum and attention the Silent Sentinels had garnered for the movement. Despite criticism from suffragists inside and outside of the National Woman’s Party, the group chose to continue their daily picketing of the White House. The suffragists upped the ante and used the moment to call out Wilson’s support for democracy abroad while not providing a full democracy at home. New banners were crafted calling the President “Kaiser Wilson.” 

Many viewed the suffragists’ wartime protests as unpatriotic, and the Silent Sentinels, including Alice Paul, began to be attacked by angry mobs crowded around them and spilling out on the street. Police began arresting the suffragists on the trumped up charge of “obstructing traffic.” Many women were jailed when they refused to pay the imposed fine citing the fact they had broken no laws while exercising their first amendment rights. Despite the danger of bodily harm and imprisonment, the suffragists continued their demonstrations for freedom unabated.

Over the course of weeks, 168 suffragists were arrested, and sent to jail or prison if they refused to pay the fines or admit guilt. Many of the arrested suffragists were sent to area prisons, including the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. While in jail, Alice and the suffragists demanded to be treated as political prisoners, in accordance with the English suffragette methodology. Officials ignored their request, leading Paul and several suffragists to begin a hunger strike. As she had experienced during her hunger strikes in England, prison officials began brutal forced feedings of the suffragists, sometimes done three times per day.

Outside the jail, arrests of suffragists continued. Many suffragists, including older frail women, were beaten, pushed, and held in cold, unsanitary, and rat-infested cells. As conditions at the prison deteriorated, prison officials moved Alice Paul to a sanitarium in an attempt to have her declared insane.

News of the conditions in which the women were held began to leak out of the prison, and as newspapers began to report on the hunger strikes led by the suffragists, sympathy for the prisoners brought many to support the cause of women’s suffrage. Public demand for the women’s release grew amongst the press, the public, and some politicians. 

When Alice Paul was finally released from prison, she and other suffragists were greeted with great fanfare. The women hoped to parlay the surge of goodwill into victory, winning women the right to vote through a federal constitutional amendment.

The Nineteenth Amendment

Toward the end of 1917, President Wilson, facing increased pressure and growing criticism of the suffragists’ treatment in prison, reversed his position and announced his support for a suffrage amendment as a “war measure.” In the following months, Wilson met with members of Congress to gain support from elected officials to vote for the suffrage amendment.

News of the conditions in which the women were held began to leak out of the prison, and as newspapers began to report on the hunger strikes led by the suffragists, sympathy for the prisoners brought many to support the cause of women’s suffrage. Public demand for the women’s release grew amongst the press, the public, and some politicians. 

Amidst growing support, in 1919, members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate voted to pass the 19th Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification. Three-fourths of the states were necessary to ratify the amendment, and following an initial wave of support, the battle for ratification landed upon the state of Tennessee in the summer of 1920. Tennessee was not a sure thing, as most elected officials in the state legislature did not support the amendment. In a very tight vote, the deciding vote was cast by 24-year-old Harry Burn, the youngest member of the Tennessee assembly. Burns has originally intended to vote “No” to the amendment, but changed his mind after receiving a telegram from his mother asking him to vote “Yes” in support of women’s suffrage. 

The Equal Rights Amendment

Many suffragists left public life and activism after the 19th Amendment was enacted, but Alice Paul was not among them. She believed the true battle for legally protected gender equality had yet to be won. 

With an eye to championing another constitutional amendment, Paul pursued and earned three law degrees (LL.B., LL.M. and D.C.L.) to better understand how legislation and laws were drafted and passed. With this knowledge, she wrote the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1923. It was introduced to Congress the same year but has yet to be ratified to the U.S. Constitution.

Current efforts to ratify the ERA center upon passing legislation in both houses of Congress to remove the time limit assigned to the ratification the ERA in 1972 by members of Congress.

Later years and death

Alice Paul’s life is a vibrant demonstration that one person can truly make a lasting difference. On July 9, 1977, Alice Paul died at the age of 92 in Moorestown, New Jersey, a short distance from her birthplace and family home of Paulsdale. She is buried in a Quaker cemetery in Cinnaminson, New Jersey.

On the centennial of her birth in 1985, the Alice Paul Institute (API) was founded to honor her legacy and continue the fight for equality for all. Headquartered at Paulsdale, which is now a National Historic Landmark, API is dedicated to preserving Paulsdale, advancing women’s history, and supporting the next generation of female leaders to develop their unique leadership style.

The Alice Paul Institute educates and encourages women and girls to be leaders in their communities, and leads national advocacy efforts to advance Alice Paul’s vision for constitutionally protected gender equality through the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Want to share Alice Paul’s story with children?

Please check out the Children’s Biography of Alice Paul, aimed at elementary-school-aged children.

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