Alice Paul was the architect of some of the most outstanding political achievements on behalf of women in the 20th century. One of the foremost leaders of the twentieth-century women’s suffrage movement, Paul spent her entire adult life devoted to advocating for and securing the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote. Her time spent in our neighborhoods was integral to her ultimate success.
Alice Stokes Paul was born on January 11th, 1885 to William and Tacie Paul at Paulsdale, the family farm and estate in Mount Laurel Township, New Jersey. Her family were strict Quakers and Paul grew up with the belief that all people were created equally. As she said, “When the Quakers were founded…one of their principles was, and is, equality of the sexes. So I never had any other idea…the principle was always there.” She received her undergraduate degree from Swarthmore College, a co-educational school co-founded by her grandfather, Judge William Parry, in 1864. Parry believed that women and men should receive an equal, Quaker-inspired education.
After graduating from Swarthmore in 1905 with a degree in biology, Alice Paul moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. While living here, she worked tirelessly in the settlement house movement. Her work experiences here in our neighborhoods highlighted for her the economic and gender disparities present in society, inspiring her to pursue the study of economics overseas.
In 1907, Paul left New York for Birmingham, England, to study social work at the Woodbrooke Settlement. While there, she met Christabel Pankhurst, who with her mother and sister led a militant faction of suffragists whose motto was “deeds not words.” Alice Paul joined them and personally broke more than 48 windows and was arrested and imprisoned on several occasions. During her imprisonment, Paul took strength from a quotation she often saw etched into prison walls: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” First expressed by Thomas Jefferson, this motto was later adopted by Susan B. Anthony and inspired a new generation of revolutionaries led by Alice Paul.
Upon her return from England, Paul finished a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and in 1912 became the head of the congressional committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Her group soon spun off from the mother organization, rejecting the state-by- state referenda approach as a method of achieving equal suffrage. That group evolved into the National Woman’s Party, which worked for suffrage by constitutional amendment. The energetic militants soon became known for their central political strategies: make suffrage a mainstream issue through public demonstrations and protests.
1912 was a banner year for the suffrage movement in New York. There were two suffrage parades/demonstrations in Greenwich Village that year. On May 4th, participants marched from Washington Square up 5th Avenue to Carnegie Hall. That protest is often remembered for the iconic photograph of suffragists in white and a baby carriage in the center. The estimated participation in the spring demonstration was about 10,000 to 15,000 marchers.
Suffrage parades brought together many smaller suffrage groups and the New York-based Women’s Political Union was the organizer of the March parade. The Women’s Political Union later became the National Women’s Party, led by Alice Paul. The horse brigade of the parade included Villager and Suffragist Inez Milholland, a close associate and supporter of Alice Paul.
Another famous rider in the horse brigade was 16-year-old Mabel Ping Hua Lee. Born in China, her missionary family came to New York when she was four. As a young Chinese American student, Lee rode on horseback at the helm of that historic 1912 parade. Lee was known for her outspoken passion for equal rights for women and Chinese Americans, and had recently caught the attention of white American suffragists, who invited her to participate in this monumental event.
The second parade was held in November of 1912 and was one of celebration for several states that were close to granting suffrage. The participants marched down 5th Avenue, but this was the first nighttime suffrage parade and there were concerns that a nighttime parade might be dangerous for women without male escorts or that the crowd would be more aggressive. However, a nighttime parade offered the opportunity for a grand spectacle. Suffragists carried 5,000 Japanese-style lanterns ordered from Paris, men who participated wore miners’ hats with lights, parade marshals had batons fitted with electric light bulbs and automobiles carried searchlights.
The organizers had planned on 20,000 participants but the night of the parade was rainy, cold, and windy. Astonishingly, 15,000 people still showed up and marched in the bad weather conditions. The illuminated nighttime parade was considered a great success. According to the “New York Times” 400,000 New Yorkers watched the parade which was described as a “river of fire”.
In 1917, Paul’s newly formed group, the NWP, organized the first in the nation’s first public picketing in front of the White House. Called the “Silent Sentinels” because they stood quietly, not speaking or interacting with passerbys, groups of women stood outside the gates of the White House, six days per week regardless of the weather. In their non-violent protest, the suffragists held hand-crafted banners inscribed with incendiary phrases directed toward President Woodrow Wilson. Initially, President Wilson treated the picketers with bemused condescension, tipping his hat to them as he passed by.
As World War I escalated, Alice Paul was determined to not lose the momentum and attention the Silent Sentinels had garnered for the suffrage movement. The group continued their daily picketing of the White House. The suffragists upped the ante and used the moment to call out Wilson’s support for democracy abroad while not providing a full democracy at home. Many viewed the suffragists’ wartime protests as unpatriotic, and the Silent Sentinels, including Alice Paul, began to be attacked by angry mobs. Police began arresting the suffragists on the trumped-up charge of “obstructing traffic.” Many women were jailed when they refused to pay the imposed fine citing the fact they had broken no laws while exercising their First Amendment rights. Despite the danger of bodily harm and imprisonment, the suffragists continued their demonstrations for freedom unabated.
Over the course of weeks, 168 suffragists were arrested, and sent to jail or prison if they refused to pay the fines or admit guilt. Many of the arrested suffragists were sent to area prisons. While in jail, Alice and the suffragists demanded to be treated as political prisoners, in accordance with the English suffragette methodology. Officials ignored their request, leading Paul and several suffragists to begin a hunger strike. As she had experienced during her hunger strikes in England, prison officials began brutal forced feedings of the suffragists, sometimes done three times per day. Many suffragists, including older frail women, were beaten, pushed, and held in cold, unsanitary, and rat-infested cells. As conditions at the prison deteriorated, prison officials moved Alice Paul to a sanitarium in an attempt to have her declared insane. When Alice Paul was finally released from prison, she and other suffragists were greeted with great fanfare. The women were able to finally achieve victory after a nearly century-old struggle, winning women the right to vote through a federal constitutional amendment in 1919. And in 1920 the suffrage amendment was RATIFIED, when the Tennessee legislature voted to incorporate it into the U.S. Constitution, to apply in every state.
Alice Paul’s life is a clear demonstration that one person can truly make a lasting difference in the lives of everyone.
Our Women’s Suffrage History Map is an invaluable resource that chronicles the people and places of the history of women’s rights and the struggle for suffrage. Please visit our website for this and scores of other resources highlighting the history of civil rights and social justice in our neighborhoods.