Alice Stokes Paul (1885 – 1977): Social Worker, Militant Activist and Suffragette
Introduction: Alice Stokes 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 Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, Alice Paul dedicated her life to the single cause of securing equal rights for all women. She was a founder of the National Womans Party and, until she was disabled by a stroke in 1974, a tireless advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment.
Biography: Alice’s father was a successful businessman and, as the president of the Burlington County Trust Company in Moorestown, NJ, earned a comfortable living. Alice’s life on Paulsdale, the “home farm” (as she referred to her home) marked her early childhood and is reflected in her work as an adult. As Quakers, Alice’s parents raised her with a belief in gender equality, and the need to work for the betterment of society. Her Quaker community stressed separation from the burgeoning materialistic society and advocated the benefits of staying close to nature.
Alice attended the Friends School (Quaker) in Moorestown, graduating at the top of her class. She went on to Swarthmore (a Quaker college founded by her grandfather in 1901), at the age of 16, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 1905. While attending Swarthmore, her father contracted pneumonia and died suddenly. She worked at the New York College Settlement while attending the New York School of Social Work. Alice Paul left for England in 1906 where she studied at the Woodbrooke Settlement for Social Work, and studied social work at the University of Birmingham and the London School of Economics. Back in the U.S., Alice received a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1912. In later life, she earned an LL.B. from the Washington College of Law, then earned an LL.M. from American University in 1927 and a Doctorate of Civil Law in 1928.
While earning degrees in law and social work in London, Alice Paul joined the radical British woman suffrage movement. In England, Alice Paul took part in radical protests for woman suffrage, including participating in hunger strikes. She brought back to the U.S. this sense of militancy in 1910, and determined to put new life into the American woman’s struggle for the vote. In 1912 Alice Paul met up with her friend, Lucy Burns, and they took over the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Congressional Committee, trying to get a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. By 1916, she formed the National Woman’s Party (NWP) that demanded a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote.
In January 1917, NWP started demonstrating in front of the White House demanding women have the right to vote. By July, President Wilson was tired of all the demonstration going on and arrests started. Paul was arrested three times and the third time she went to jail she went on a hunger strike. Paul was force fed three times a day, for three weeks. They held her down to a chair while a tube, about 5 to 6 feet long was put through her mouth and once through her nose. When she got out of jail for the third time she kept fighting for the women’s suffrage. Finally, President Wilson gave up fighting and said that he would support a woman’s right to voting.
After the amendment passed in Congress, Alice Paul and others began working for the amendment to be ratified by each state. The woman’s right to vote was finally won in 1920. Following that, Alice Paul mobilized the National Woman’s Party to fight for a constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to complete equality before the law (the “Equal Rights Amendment,” or ERA). Although she did not live to see an equal rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution, she did get an equal rights affirmation in the preamble to the United Nations charter. Until she was debilitated by a stroke in 1974, Alice Paul continued to fight for the equal rights amendment. She died on July 9, 1977, in Moorestown, New Jersey.
Alice Paul and the Struggle for Women’s Suffrage
Women gained the right to vote in 1920 when the states ratified the 19th Amendment. Before that, only women in western states could vote in public elections. The struggle for suffrage (the right to vote) was a long battle. For 70 years, many men and women had worked to change the laws that stopped women voting. One of those women was Alice Paul, a civil rights activist from New Jersey. She founded the National Woman’s Party and organized big, public spectacles in Washington, DC, to win national support for a Constitutional amendment to give women voting rights.
Alice Paul learned how to get people’s attention from English activists. Before Paul worked for women’s rights in the United States, she worked for them in England. She moved to England in 1907 and became involved that country’s women’s suffrage movement. She participated in parades, street meetings, and protests that led to her arrest and imprisonment. When she was in jail, Paul took part in hunger strikes and was force-fed. Along with other women, Paul was held down and forced to take in food through a tube. When she returned to the United States in 1910, Paul joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and three years later she went to Washington, DC, as the chairman of the association’s Congressional Union.
The Congressional Union was not a priority for the NAWSA when Paul arrived in Washington. The association did not want to use its money and volunteers to support a Constitutional amendment. It focused its efforts on changing state laws, not federal ones. However, Paul made an amendment her goal and found supporters. She and her ally Lucy Burns rented a basement apartment near the White House to be their headquarters. From there the two women began a campaign to secure a women’s suffrage.
Paul believed publicity would help her cause. She wanted newspaper coverage to keep suffrage on the minds of Americans across the country. After a few months in Washington, Paul and a small group of activists organized a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House. She planned this parade for the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 inauguration. Over 5,000 women came from all over the United States and from other countries to participate. Male spectators harassed the women. They yelled and then physically attacked them. The police did nothing. The spectacle and the violence made woman’s suffrage front-page news across the country.
Alice Paul’s protests and her focus on getting a suffrage amendment passed did not go over well with the NAWSA leaders. On top of that, the NAWSA did not side with or single out a political party while Paul loudly criticized whichever party had the most power. Paul and the NAWSA leaders supported a suffrage amendment, but they believed in different tactics. Paul’s group left the NAWSA after several years in Washington because of these differences. She and her allies in Washington renamed their group the “National Woman’s Party” by 1916 and continued their work. They lost the benefits of being connected to the NAWSA, but by then they had the financial and social support of Alva Belmont.
Belmont was a very wealthy and famous American socialite from New York. She was also a feminist who worked for political rights for women in the United States and in Europe. She met Paul in 1913 and was impressed by her bold activism. Like Paul, Belmont was not happy with the NAWSA’s slow progress. Belmont supported the Congressional Committee. She stayed with the group after it became the National Woman’s Party. She did not participate in the protests, but her large donations and connections were important for the women’s movement. With Belmont’s support, the NWP kept its fashionable headquarters near the White House.1
Paul’s organization lobbied Congress and put pressure on President Wilson. They also used more public forms of action, including parades, pageants, street speaking, and demonstrations. In early 1917, the president was not persuaded, so the NWP adopted tactics that were more aggressive and more confrontational. They picketed the White House from Lafayette Square. They also burned Wilson’s speeches in public fires.This is a common tactic for activists today, but they were the first group to do this in American history. The picket lines continued for months, rain or shine.
During World War I, some Americans thought Alice Paul and her White House picketing was unpatriotic. Women on the picket line were attacked by bystanders and sometimes by soldiers. Police were there, but they either did nothing or they arrested the protestors. Alice Paul was arrested in October 1917 and sentenced to seven months in prison. For the second time in her life, she went on a hunger strike and again the prison officials responded with forced feeding. Women of the NWP demanded to be considered political prisoners rather than criminals. Of the thousands of women who served on the picket line organized by Paul, about 500 were arrested, and 168 served prison sentences.2 Paul’s methods worked and newspapers reported on the arrests. The public was shocked to hear about the hunger strikes and violent, forced-feedings in jail. News coverage increased public support for an amendment.
The campaigns of the National Woman’s Party eventually forced Wilson to support a federal amendment that would give women the right to vote.3 On June 4, 1919, the Senate passed the Susan B. Anthony Amendment for equal suffrage. It had already been passed a number of times by the House of Representatives. The 19thAmendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified by the necessary three-quarters of the states and became law shortly before the election of 1920. This was 42 years after it was submitted to Congress for the first time. The Amendment states:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Alice Paul is a well-known person in American history, but she was not the only person who worked for woman’s suffrage and historians sometimes disagree about how important she was to the movement. Some argue that she inspired “profound and unquestioning loyalty” in her followers and caused extreme distrust by her detractors.4 Ex-Congressional Union member Charlotte Whitney called it an “autocratic organization with its controls entirely in the hands of one woman” and many people thought that description applied to the National Woman’s Party, as well.5 However, according to historian William F. O’Neill, “Other leaders were widely admired, even loved, but Miss Paul was the only one whose example led women of all ages and stations to risk jail and worse.”6
1 Hoffert, Sylvia, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont: Unlikely Champion of Women’s Rights (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University, 2012), 89-106.
2 Lunardini, Christine. From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights (New York, NY: New York University, 2000), 138.
3 Baker and Dodd, Public Papers of Woodrow Wilson, V, 264-267. Quoted in Lunardini, Introduction, xiii.
4 Lunardini, 2000.
5 Charlotte Whitney to Mrs. William Kent, September 26, 1915. National Woman’s Party Papers.
6 O’Neill, Lawrence. Feminism in America: A History. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2009).
Source: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior: Women’s Rights Historical Park, New York- www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/148sewallbelmont/148facts1.htm (Accessed: June 16, 2016)