This is part of a series recognizing the lives of suffragists in honor of the anniversary of ratification of the 19th Amendment (August 1920). These aren’t meant to be comprehensive, and I’m most certainly not an authority on the lives of any of these women, but if you want to learn more, I encourage you to read a book written by someone who is.
Alice Paul was born into a Quaker family in New Jersey. Her mother was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and brought her young daughter along to meetings. Paul received her B.A. in Biology from Swarthmore College, a co-educational Quaker school co-founded by her grandfather.
In 1907 Paul traveled to England to study social work and during her stay chanced upon the suffragist Christabel Pankhurst delivering a speech. She was jeered so loudly she couldn’t be heard and was forced from the stage. Paul introduced herself to Pankhurst and became involved with the suffrage movement in Britain.
The Pankhursts (Christabel and her mother Emmeline, most prominently) were members of a militant suffragist faction with the motto ‘deeds, not words’. They engaged in rock throwing, window smashing, and other acts that got them arrested–and also got them notoriety and substantial press coverage. They also believed that the party in power should always be held responsible for women’s secondary status. Paul joined in these activities and was arrested several times. The suffragists protested arrest through hunger strikes, and consequently suffered force-feeding, which involved being held down while steel gags forced their mouths open and tubes were inserted into their esophagi. Paul was also threatened with commitment to an insane asylum.
Paul returned to the United States in 1910 and began graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, ultimately earning a M.A. in Sociology and a Ph.D. in Economics. She joined NAWSA and was put in charge of campaigning for a federal suffrage amendment. In 1912 Paul and her friend Lucy Burns traveled to Washington D.C. to organize for suffrage, and decided to stage a parade of over 5,000 marchers up Pennsylvania Avenue to coincide with Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in 1913.
Male onlookers jeered the suffragists, then started physically attacking them while the police looked on and did nothing. Around 100 marchers were treated for injuries, and the Secretary of War called out cavalry to control the crowd. However, a majority of the marchers completed the route to the Treasury building, where an allegorical pageant was staged. The parade made politicians, the public, and the press pay attention to suffrage–and got a Congressional inquiry into the conduct of the D.C. Police Department.
Paul adopted the British suffrage tactic of holding the current party responsible for disenfranchisement, and promptly began putting pressure on Wilson. Paul and her followers left NAWSA and formed the National Women’s Party (NWP), which posted ‘Silent Sentinels’ outside the White House to picket the President. The women were sometimes attacked by onlookers and arrested by the police on charges of ‘obstructing traffic’. They were sent to Occoquan Workhouse, where they demanded to be treated as political prisoners and staged hunger strikes, and were again subjected to force-feeding. News of the appalling conditions and treatment in the prison gained great public sympathy for the suffragists and their cause, and they were released from prison.
President Wilson changed his position on suffrage in 1917 and declared his support for the vote as a ‘war measure’. In 1919 the measure passed the House and Senate, and the amendment was handed down to the states for ratification, which was achieved in August 1920.
Alice Paul continued her activism for the rest of her life, and was the author of the original Equal Rights Amendment, which remains three states short of ratification.