Alice Paul (1885 – 1977) was an American Quaker campaigner for women’s suffrage. She was born in New Jersey, USA, to a Quaker family, and was educated at Swarthmore College. While in Britain in 1908, she became a member of the suffrage organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union, after hearing Christabel Pankhurst speak at the University of Birmingham. While still in the UK, she was arrested three times and, along with other suffragists, went on hunger strike while in jail and was force-fed.
Returning to the US in 1910, she found the American suffrage movement focused on campaigns for state-by-state referenda as a way of forcing a national constitutional change. Paul rejected this approach. She was convinced that the best way to achieve votes for women nationally was to focus on the President, Woodrow Wilson. In 1913, on the day before his inauguration, Paul organized a march of five thousand women past the White House in Washington DC.
Days later, she led a delegation asking the President to request Congress to debate a national amendment on women’s suffrage. Wilson told them he had not decided his position. Paul’s response was to mount a campaign to ‘educate’ him. Over the next few years, she lobbied him repeatedly. Wilson did vote in favour of women’s suffrage in a (defeated) referendum in his home state of New Jersey, but he consistently refused to take action nationally.
Paul broke away from the main National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1916 to found the National Woman’s Party – a group intent of making suffrage a national issue by means of public demonstrations and protests.
In 1917, when Wilson refused to see any more of their delegations, the NWP began a silent picket outside the White House – a radical move for the time. Known at the ‘Silent Sentinels,’ they remained for months, at times mustering as many as a thousand picketers.
Until the US joined WWI, the Silent Sentinels were tolerated, if ignored. But with the outbreak of war, the arrests began, usually on charges of ‘obstructing traffic.’ Initially, the women would be jailed for two or three days, and then released. When this failed to stop the picketers, the response became harsher.
In October 1917, Paul was arrested and sentenced to seven months in Occoquan Workhouse jail in Virginia. On the day of her arrest, she was carrying a banner that read: “The Time Has Come To Conquer Or Submit, For Us There Can Be But One Choice. We Have Made It” —parodying Wilson’s own words on the US’s entry into the war.
The treatment of the suffragists in prison was appalling. The jail was filthy, cold in winter and hot in summer. The women were held in solitary confinement and denied legal counsel. When Paul went on hunger strike in protest, she was moved to the psychopathic ward, deprived of sleep and again force-fed – a painful and dangerous procedure involving a tube being forced down her nose and throat.
One doctor at the jail described her as having, “a spirit like Joan of Arc, and it is useless to try to change it. She will die but she will never give up.”
Meanwhile, on one night in November, thirty women suffragists in the jail were violently beaten by their guards. Newspapers like the New York Times began to carry stories of the women’s ill treatment, which generated a wave of protest and sympathy. All the women were released the end of November, and the following March their arrests and subsequent treatment were declared unconstitutional.
In January 1918, Wilson announced that the women’s suffrage was urgently needed “as a war measure”. However, it wasn’t until 1920 that votes for women were secured.
Paul went on to receive her Doctorate in Civil Law from the American University in 1928. She continued to work for Women’s Rights right up to her death in 1977. In 1938, she founded the World Woman’s Party. After WWII, she worked to ensure that equal rights for men and women were built into the UN’s definition of Human Rights. She also campaigned for an Equal Rights amendment to the US constitution, which failed to receive the requisite number of ratifications for acceptance.
Categories: Womens History