USU's Year of the Woman: Alice Paul – A Warrior for Women's Rights

Happy New Year! 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of a Utahn, Seraph Young, casting the first vote by a woman in the modern nation; the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th amendment; and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, allowing all U.S. citizens the ability to vote. Activists such as Susan B. Anthony are widely recognized, but one of the key figures—Alice Paul—for whom the Belmont-Paul National Equality Monument in Washington, DC, is named, is not as well known. In honor of her birthday on January 11, we shine a light on this warrior for women’s rights.

In early May 2020, USU will host a trip to the East to experience the battle for the ballot firsthand. Stops along the tour include Anthony’s house museum in Rochester, New York, Eleanor Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park, New York, and the 1913 Suffrage Parade Route in the nation’s capital. Consider joining Utah State University alumni, faculty, and staff for this journey back in time and relive the historic fight for women’s rights. 

The suffrage movement was a battle that continued through two massive wars and seven decades. It officially began in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention, the first woman’s rights convention. Following this event, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Moss, and several others formed a drive that revolutionized a woman’s place in society. Given the length of the battle, a younger generation came on board.

Alice Paul was born in 1885 in New Jersey to Quaker parents, William and Tacie Paul, who instilled in her Quaker values, such as equality of the sexes. Such values were infrequently held during the time period. Paul’s parents also embraced education for women and women working to improve society. Alice was exposed to ideals of equality as she attended suffrage meetings with her mother; however, at this young age, she was likely unaware of the role that the suffrage movement would come to play in her life.

Paul graduated from the local Quaker School in 1901 at the top of her class and entered Swarthmore College and was graduated with a degree in biology in 1905. While attending Swarthmore, Alice was taught and mentored by some of the leading female academics of the day. She also participated in student government, was named Ivy Poetess, and spoke at commencement.

Following Paul’s graduation, she journeyed to New York to pursue further education. In 1907, Paul travelled to England to study social work. She was exposed to the more militant suffrage efforts of Mrs. Pankhurst and her two daughters. These women believed that peaceful movements such as prayer and petitions were not enough to enfranchise women and that more drastic and visible measures were necessary. Paul joined their movement. According to one interview, Paul was reported to have broken more than 48 windows. She was also arrested and imprisoned. During Paul’s confinement, she and other suffragettes protested with hunger strikes, a tactic she brought back to America.

Upon her return to America in 1910, she brought with her the radicalism of the English suffrage movement and a desire to reshape the American suffrage campaign. Paul joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), quickly moving up the ranks. As head of the Congressional Committee, she was in charge of working for a federal suffrage amendment. In 1913, Paul, joined by Lucy Burns, organized a suffrage parade in Washington D.C., on the eve of the presidential inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. This well-organized parade made national headlines.

In 1914, Paul and her followers chose to sever ties with the NAWSA and in 1916, formed the National Woman’s Party (NWP). This group organized the “Silent Sentinels” – women tasked with picketing the White House, boasting signs with phrases such as “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”

President Woodrow Wilson treated these women with civility until the United States entered World War I. People began to view the suffragists’ actions as unpatriotic, and sentinels began to be attacked and imprisoned. Despite being treated roughly, Paul and fellow suffragists persisted. Arrests continued, and Paul, along with many other women, were sent to Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. Determined to continue drawing attention to “Votes for Women,” Paul and other suffragists began to stage hunger strikes. Paul and others were forcibly fed, and news of these hunger strikes eventually made their way into the press. The public and politicians began calling for their release, and many came to support the suffrage movement. 

Paul’s militant actions and leadership were great contributors in the suffrage movement, gaining national attention and the ultimate passing of the 19th amendment in 1920. The dramatic film Iron Jawed Angels tells her story. 

Although many women left activism after women gained the right to vote, Alice Paul continued to fight for women’s rights. In 1923, Paul announced that she was working on a new constitutional amendment: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.” This Equal Rights Amendment was highly controversial and was introduced in every congressional session beginning in 1923 until it was passed in 1972; the amendment was never ratified, but even now, states continue to vote in its favor.

Paul continued in public service throughout the rest of her life. She earned three law degrees, began the World Woman’s Party (WWP), headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, and maintained her involvement in women’s issues and the promotion of gender equality.

Alice Paul died on July 9, 1977, in Moorestown, New Jersey. Her family estate, Paulsdale, houses the Alice Paul Institute, dedicated to leadership development programs. Learn more about this remarkable woman on USU’s Celebration of Suffrage tour.