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Alice Paul, suffragist and activist, in 10 facts

Ninety-four years ago today, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States took effect, enshrining American women’s right to vote. Fifty years later, in the midst of a new wave of feminist activism, Congress designated 26 August as Women’s Equality Day in the United States. The 1971 Joint Resolution read, in part, “the women of the United States have been treated as second-class citizens and have not been entitled the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional, which are available to male citizens of the United States” and women “have united to assure that these rights and privileges are available to all citizens equally regardless of sex.” For that reason, Congress was prevailed upon to declare 26 August a day to commemorate the the Nineteenth Amendment as a “symbol of the continued fight for equal rights.”

Alice Paul was a pivotal and controversial figure in the last years of the American battle to win the vote for women. Her first national action was to organize a grand suffrage procession in Washington, DC on 3 March 1913. She organized the parade on behalf of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the only group working to win women the vote on a national scale. She later founded her own organization, the National Woman’s Party, and charted a surprisingly aggressive course of social protests to convince Congress to pass a woman suffrage amendment to the Constitution.

Alice Paul lived long enough to see Women’s Equality Day established; she died in 1977. She did not live to see the project which consumed the remaining years of her life ratified — an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. In 2014, a renewed effort emerged to pass the ERA.

As Women’s Equality Day is celebrated around the country today, here are a few things you may not know about suffrage leader and ERA author Alice Paul:

Alice Paul. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Alice Paul. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

1.  Alice Paul was proudly a birthright Quaker, but as she became interested in politics, she became frustrated with her faith’s reluctance to actively work for woman suffrage. We often associate Quakers with political activism, but in the late nineteenth century, the vast majority of Quakers disapproved of such efforts.

2.  Paul loved dancing and sports. Indeed, her love for physical activity was a factor in drawing her into social protest, first in England, then in America. In her high school and college years, she played softball, basketball, hockey, and tennis, and also ice skated when she could. She learned to dance while attending Swarthmore College near Philadelphia and regretted her few opportunities to attend dances in her later years.

3.  Paul was arrested seven times in England for her suffrage activism, but only once in America. The longest sentence she served in Britain was one month. In the United States, she was sentenced to seven months, but only served one.

4.  Paul endured forced feeding fifty-five times in London’s Holloway Prison in 1909 and perhaps another twenty-five times while at the District of Columbia’s Jail in 1917. Authorities used forced feeding to break the hunger strikes initiated by suffrage prisoners. Some women suffered health problems as a result. Alice Paul struggled with digestive issues for years after and may have lost her sense of smell.

5.  Paul is often portrayed as eager to leave NAWSA to found her own militant suffrage group. In fact, she did so only when her hand was forced. Divisions over strategy or tactics are nothing new to any political group and NAWSA itself came about only in 1890 after two long-estranged suffrage organizations compromised in order to present a united front. The 1914 effort to oust the controversial Alice Paul from NAWSA arose from multiple sources, including the current NAWSA president, Anna Howard Shaw and once-and-future president, Carrie Chapman Catt.

6.  Paul’s persona as a leader combined stereotypically feminine and masculine traits in a way that invited fervent loyalty or deep-seated antipathy. Her dislike of the spotlight and ingrained modesty lent her a vulnerability which undercut concerns about her militant past and her powerful drive. Others found her charismatic authority threatening.

7.  Though the protests of Paul’s National Woman’s Party are often described as “civil disobedience,” Paul believed all of her actions were completely within the law. Before Paul initiated picketing to protest the lack of a suffrage amendment in 1917, picketing was largely the province of labor organizations. After consulting with attorneys about the legality of the practice, Paul adapted the silent vigil of two earlier protests and sent “silent sentinels” to picket the White House. While labor picketing often prompted violence on both sides, Paul gave her troops strict instructions to remain non-violent. Violence was, however, visited upon them by bystanders outraged by the women’s insistence on pressing for suffrage while the country was engaged in World War I.

8.  Paul’s most colorful protests occurred after the House of Representatives passed the suffrage amendment bill. It took another eighteen months to convince the Senate to pass the amendment. To maintain pressure on Congress, Alice Paul crafted watchfire protests across from the White House in Lafayette Square, during which suffragists burned President Wilson’s words about his much-celebrated belief in democracy. They even burned Wilson in effigy to urge him to use his political power to sway the Senate.

9.  Alice Paul was not present during the frenzied effort to make Tennessee the ratifying state for the suffrage amendment. She longed to be at the Tennessee statehouse, but NWP lobbying required a constant input of cash. Her ability to raise funds surpassed anyone else’s, so she chose to stay in Washington to keep the money flowing. Paul’s ability to raise funds was a key factor in the success of the NWP.

10.  Alice Paul bequeathed us the iconic images of the battle for the ballot: photographs of the 1913 procession, the 1917 White House pickets, the 1918 watchfire protests. These images speak to the courage, the persistence and the fortitude of all the women who fought to gain the most fundamental right of citizenship: the right to consent.

Featured image: Alice Paul. Public Domain via Library of Congress.

Recent Comments

  1. […] For starters, try this excellent interview with historian Linda Gordon about the intersection of the labor right’s movement and the women’s movement. Or this primer on suffragette Alice Paul. […]

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