Alice Paul: America’s leading activist of women’s suffrage
Alice Stokes Paul was one of the foremost leaders of the twentieth-century women’s suffragist movement who first proposed an equal rights amendment to the United States Constitution. She was a strong campaigner and played a crucial role in the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which granted women the right to vote.
Alice Paul was born on January 11, 1885, in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, as the oldest of four children of Tacie Perry and William Paul. Her father, William Paul, was a wealthy Quaker businessman and her mother, Tacie Perry, was a suffragist. Paul’s parents supported gender equality and education for women. Her mother took young Alice to suffrage meetings.
Alice Paul attended Swarthmore College for graduation. It was a Quaker school co-founded by her grandfather. In 1905, she graduated with a degree in biology. After graduation, she attended the New York School of Philanthropy (now Columbia University). In 1907, Paul received a Master of Arts degree in Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania.
After getting her Master’s degree, Paul travelled to England to study social work. During her time in England, she met Lucy Burns, an American suffragist activist. She joined the suffragist movement and learnt militant protest strategies, including picketing and hunger strikes. Paul was jailed three times in England for suffragist agitation. Upon her return to the United States, she earned a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1912.
Alice Paul was more inclined to the measures taken by her British counterparts, so she organised parades and pickets in support of suffrage.
Back in the United States, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns joined the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Paul led the Washington, DC, chapter of the association. NAWSA mainly focused on arranging state-by-state campaigns, whereas Alice Paul preferred to lobby Congress for the constitutional amendment. This led her and others to split up from NAWSA and form the National Woman’s Party.
Alice Paul was more inclined to the measures taken by her British counterparts, so she organised parades and pickets in support of suffrage. On March 3, 1913, Paul organised her first and the largest parade in Washington, DC. It was a day before President-elect Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. About 8,000 women marched from Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House with banners. On March 17, Paul and other suffragists met President Woodrow Wilson, but Wilson was not favourable and said it was not yet time for a constitutional amendment. On April 7, Paul founded the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage to focus specifically on lobbying Congress.
In January 1917, Alice Paul and other suffragists started 18 months of picketing the White House. They stood at the gates with signs like, ‘Mr President, how long must women wait for liberty?’
The protestors had to endure severe hardships during this time. They faced physical and verbal attacks from the spectators. The intensity of these attacks increased once the United States entered World War II. Police arrested them on the charges of obstructing the traffic. Paul was sentenced to seven-month jail.
However, Alice Paul could not be silenced. She organised a hunger strike in prison as a protest against the government. Doctors threatened to send her to a lunatic asylum and force-feed her. Her protest garnered public sympathy when newspapers published reports of the treatment meted out to her.
By 1918, President Woodrow Wilson announced his support for suffrage. It took two more years for the Nineteenth Amendment to get approved in 1920. In 1922, Paul took a law degree from the Washington College of Law, and Master’s and Doctor’s degrees from American University in 1927 and 1928, respectively.
Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party shifted their focus to the Equal Rights Amendment to guarantee women constitutional protection from discrimination. In 1923, she drafted the first equal rights amendment, but it failed to pass. Then she turned her attention to the international forum. She succeeded in obtaining support for her activities from the League of Nations.
Alice Paul served as chairman of the Woman’s Research Foundation during 1927-1937. In 1938, she founded the World Party for Equal Rights for Women, later known as the World Women’s Party.
Paul was elected chairman of the National Woman’s Party in 1942. She spent the rest of her life campaigning for various issues that women faced. She insisted that the reason for many of the troubles in the world was women’s lack of political power.
Alice Paul passed away on July 9, 1977.
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