Alice 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.