Alice Paul was an American suffragist and feminist who dedicated her life to women’s rights. She was one of the leaders of the campaign for the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Paul first learned about the fight for women’s suffrage from her mother, Tacie Paul who was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. This, coupled with the fact that she had served as a member of the Executive Board of Student Government while at Swarthmore College (which was co-founded by her grandfather) and her Quaker background that valued public service would lead Paul into a future of political activism.
After graduation, Paul briefly became a social worker and the injustices she saw while working at the College Settlement House led her to continue her education in order to build skills necessary to help those she felt that would not benefit from social work alone. She returned to education, studying political science, sociology and economics at the University of Pennsylvania before continuing her education at the University of Birmingham, England. While in England, she heard suffragette Christabel Pankhurst speak and joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She was arrested several times while protesting for Votes for Women. Paul and fellow American Lucy Burns became integral to the WSPUs campaigning and were trusted to organise events, run campaign offices. They also travelled with Emmeline Pankhurst to Scotland to raise awareness for the need for Votes for Women.
In 1910, Paul returned to the U.S. to recover from her experiences while arrested for protesting – force feeding and terrible conditions would forever negatively effect her health. Paul then earned a PhD in sociology. Her thesis was entitled “The Legal Position of Women in Pennsylvania” and focused on the need for women’s suffrage. While in England, Professor Beatrice Webb had confirmed what Paul had feared while employed as a social worker – that social changes in society, including equal legal status for women would be the only way to truly tackle issues like poverty..
In 1913, Paul organised the hugely successful Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington the day before President Wilson’s inauguration at which the lead banner read “”We Demand an Amendment to the United States Constitution Enfranchising the Women of the Country.” Just as in England, the procession descended into a riot and many women were harmed. Paul formed the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage and the National Women’s Party and used some of the methods she’d used while campaigning with the WSPU. In 1917, Paul and the NWP staged the first political protest and picketing at the White House which would become known as the “Silent Sentinels”. Women held banners demanding the right to vote, despite the fact that many thought that they were being unpatriotic after the U.S. entered World War I. They were eventually arrested, gaining them some press attention both for their protests and the abuse that they suffered at the hands of the government. Protests, and arrests continued and Paul was sentenced to a seven-month jail term where she went on hunger strike. This led to her being confined to the psychiatric ward and force-fed through a feeding tube. She said that “It was shocking that a government of men could look with such extreme contempt on a movement that was asking nothing except such a simple little thing as the right to vote.”
On the 18th August 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted which prohibits the states and the federal government from denying the right to vote to citizens of the United States on the basis of sex. Paul and the NWP then turned their attention to the Equal Rights Amendment and ensuring that women were protected in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Paul died at the age of 92 in 1977, two years later she was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.