Alice Paul, Women's Suffrage Activist

Why Is the Equal Rights Amendment Named for Her?

Alice Paul, about 1920
Alice Paul, about 1920. PhotoQuest / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Alice Paul (January 11, 1885 - July 9, 1977) was a leading figure responsible for the final push and success in winning passage of the 19th Amendment (woman suffrage) to the U.S. Constitution. She is identified with the more radical wing of the later woman suffrage movement.


Alice Paul was born in Moorestown, New Jersey, in 1885. Her parents raised her and her three younger siblings as Quakers. Her father, William M. Paul, was a successful businessman, and her mother, Tacie Parry Paul, active in the Quaker (Society of Friends) movement.  Tacie Paul was a descendant of William Penn, and William Paul a descendant of the Winthrop family, early leaders in Massachusetts.  William Paul died when Alice was sixteen years old, and a more conservative male relative, asserting leadership in the family, caused some tensions with the family's more liberal and tolerant ideas.

Alice Paul attended Swarthmore College, the same institution her mother had attended as one of the first women educated there.  She majored in biology at first, but developed an interest in social sciences.  Paul then went to work at the New York College Settlement, while attending the New York School of Social Work for a year after graduation from Swarthmore in 1905. 

Alice Paul left for England in 1906 to work in the settlement house movement there for three years. She studied first at a Quaker school, then at the University of Birmingham. She returned to America to get her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (1912).  Her dissertation was on women's legal status.

Alice Paul Learns Militancy

In England, Alice Paul had taken part in more radical protests for woman suffrage, including participating in the hunger strikes. She worked with the Women's Social and Political Union. She brought back this sense of militancy, and back in the U.S. she organized protests and rallies and ended up imprisoned three times.

National Woman's Party

Alice Paul was chair of a major committee (congressional) of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) within a year, in her mid-twenties, but a year later (1913) Alice Paul and others withdrew from the NAWSA to form the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. This organization evolved into the National Woman's Party in 1917, and Alice Paul's leadership was key to this organization's founding and future.

NWP versus NAWSA

Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party emphasized working for a federal constitutional amendment for suffrage. Their position was at odds with the position of the NAWSA, headed by Carrie Chapman Catt, which was to work state-by-state as well as at the federal level.

NWP and NAWSA Synergy

Despite the often intense acrimony between the National Woman's Party and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, it's probably fair to say (in retrospect) that the two groups' tactics complemented each other.  NAWSA's taking more deliberate action to win suffrage in elections meant that more politicians at the federal level had a stake in keeping women voters happy. The NWP's militant stands kept the issue of woman suffrage at the forefront of the political world.

Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)

After the 1920 victory for the federal amendment, Paul became involved in the struggle to introduce and pass an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The Equal Rights Amendment was finally passed by Congress in 1970 and sent to the states to ratify. However, the number of states necessary never ratified the ERA within the specified time limit, and the Amendment failed.

Studying Law

Paul earned a law degree in 1922 at Washington College, then studied at American University, earning her second Ph.D., this time in law.

Alice Paul and Peace

Paul also was active in the Peace movement, stating at the outbreak of World War II that if women had helped to end World War I, the second war would not have been necessary.

Alice Paul's Death

Alice Paul died in 1977 in New Jersey, after the heated battle for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) brought her once more to the forefront of the American political scene.

Books on Alice Paul