of these behaviors. Whether or not they were true or exaggerated, it is a fact that Alice Paul has been overlooked by some historians and has been the subject of criticism by others.
Her life began in 1885 in New Jersey as the daughter of two prominent members of the Quaker community, from which she acquired the values that would remain with her. Gender equality and education for women were integral values of her home and her community.
Indeed, Alice’s education included a degree in Biology from Swarthmore College; a Masters of Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania; a Law degree from the Washington College of Law at American University; and a PhD in Civil Law from American University. To say she was a formidable and brilliant student would be an understatement.
With all of these academic accomplishments and a commitment to furthering women’s rights, how, then, did Alice Paul become the subject of such controversy? On a trip to England she encountered Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, the militant founders of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and determined that social work could not bring about the changes in the status of women that she wanted.
Militant activism became her vocation. Demonstrating in England, she was beaten, jailed, and, when she went on a hunger strike, brutally force-fed, which compromised her health for years afterwards. Returning to the U.S., Paul continued her activism, joining the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and moving to Washington D.C. Later, after a dispute about tactics, she left the NAWSA and established the National Woman’s Party (NWP) in 1917. (The NWP’s Washington, D.C. headquarters were designated a National Monument by President Obama in April.)
Paul, the activist, barely stopped for breath after the passage of the 19th Amendment. She trudged on, convinced that the true battle for equality was yet to be won and, in 1923 she wrote the “Lucretia Mott Amendment” (changed in 1943 to the Equal Rights Amendment), which stated, “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.” When, in 1972, the ERA passed in both houses of Congress, Alice Paul did not celebrate.
In fact, she vehemently opposed the change in wording: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” and felt strongly that the ERA would not be ratified because the tactics of women’s groups were too timid. Today, we are still three states short of achieving final ratification, even after countless letters and marches and picketing and hunger strikes.
Where is Alice when you need her!
Was Paul difficult? Certainly, to those who opposed her, she was. Was she militant? Yes and no. Her Quaker upbringing instilled non-violence as a protest tactic, and there is no record of her being personally violent, but her participation often brought violent results.
Was she a hypochondriac? Certainly she had severe health problems, but many of these were the result of being beaten and force-fed. Was she a martyr? It is unlikely that she viewed herself as cast upon the fires of the women’s movement in martyrdom. Instead,
it is accurate to say that Alice Paul was indisputably single-minded and dedicated to the cause of rights and equality for women.
Well, finally, she gets her due! The woman who was the most consequential civil rights leader of the 20th century, and who has long been forgotten by the general public, will appear on the $10 bill in 2020 to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment.
She will be joined by other historic suffragist
leaders Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth in an image of the historic march for suffrage that ended on the steps of the Treasury Department.
She will be joined by other historic suffragist leaders Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth in an image of the historic march for suffrage that ended on the steps of the Treasury Department.