Biography of Alice Paul, Women's Suffrage Activist

Alice Paul, about 1920

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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 (women's suffrage) to the U.S. Constitution. She is identified with the more radical wing of the women's suffrage movement that later developed.

Fast Facts: Alice Paul

  • Known For: Alice Paul was one of the leaders of the women's suffrage movement and continued to work for women's rights throughout the first half of the 20th century
  • Born: January 11, 1885 in Mount Laurel, New Jersey
  • Parents: Tacie Parry and William Paul
  • Died: July 9, 1977 in Moorestown, New Jersey
  • Education: Bachelors Degree from Swarthmore University; Masters Degree from Columbia University; Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania; Law Degree from American University
  • Published Works: Equal Rights Amendment
  • Awards and Honors: Posthumously inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in and the New Jersey Hall of Fame; had stamps and coins created in her image
  • Notable Quote: "There will never be a new world order until women are a part of it."

Early Life

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, was active in the Quaker (Society of Friends) movement. Tacie Paul was a descendant of William Penn and William Paul was a descendant of the Winthrop family, both early leaders in Massachusetts. William Paul died when Alice was 16 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 graduating from Swarthmore in 1905. 

Alice Paul left for England in 1906 to work in the settlement house movement for three years. She studied first at a Quaker school and then at the University of Birmingham. While in England, Paul was exposed to the suffragist movement in progress, which had a profound impact on her direction in life. 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 and the National Woman's Party

In England, Alice Paul had taken part in more radical protests for women's 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 was imprisoned three times.

Alice Paul joined and became chair of a major committee (congressional) of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) within a year, in her mid-20s. A year later in 1913, however, Alice Paul and others withdrew from the NAWSA to form the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. Paul and her supporters believed that the NAWSA was too conservative and that a more radical approach was needed to push forward the agenda of women's suffrage. Paul's new organization evolved into the National Woman's Party (NWP), and Alice Paul's leadership was key to this organization's founding and future.

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.

Despite the often intense acrimony between the National Woman's Party and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, 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 stance kept the issue of women's suffrage at the forefront of the political world.

Winning Women's Suffrage

Alice Paul, as the leader of the NWP, took her cause to the streets. Following the same approach as her English compatriots, she put together pickets, parades, and marches, including a very large event in Washington, DC, on March 3, 1913. Eight thousand women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue with banners and floats, cheered and jeered by tens of thousands of onlookers.

Just two weeks later, Paul's group met with newly-elected President Woodrow Wilson, who told them that their time had not yet come. In response, the group embarked on an 18-month period of picketing, lobbying, and demonstrations. More than 1,000 women stood at the gates of the White House each day, displaying signs as the "silent sentinels." The result was that many of the picketers were arrested and jailed for months. Paul arranged a hunger strike, which led to intense publicity for her cause.

In 1928, Woodrow Wilson succumbed and announced his support for women's votes. Two years later, women's suffrage was the law.

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.

Paul continued her work into her later years, earning a law degree in 1922 at Washington College, and then going on to earn a Ph.D. in law at American University.

Death

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

Legacy

Alice Paul was one of the primary forces behind the passage of the 19th Amendment, a major and lasting achievement. Her influence continues today through the Alice Paul Institute, which states on its website:

The Alice Paul Institute educates the public about the life and work of Alice Stokes Paul (1885-1977), and offers heritage and girls’ leadership development programs at Paulsdale, her home and a National Historic Landmark. Alice Paul led the final fight to get women the vote and wrote the Equal Rights Amendment. We honor her legacy as a role model of leadership in the continuing quest for equality.

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