Unsung Heroes: Alice Paul

Throughout March, in honor of Women’s History Month, we will be featuring unsung heroes and stories of the women’s suffrage movement. You can find more of those well-known and not-so-well-known stories in our Digital Classroom “Women, Their Rights and Nothing Less ” module, endorsed by NCSS. To access these resources, you must be signed into the Digital Classroom; registration is free.

Alice Paul (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington)

Alice Paul (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington)

Alice Paul devoted her life to women’s rights in the United States. She worked tirelessly to ensure women’s suffrage and wrote the first draft of the Equal Rights Amendment. Born in 1885 in New Jersey, Paul was raised as a Hicksite Quaker. As a Quaker, Paul grew up surrounded by the idea that men and women were equal. Her mother, Tacie, a member of the American Woman Suffrage Association, attended meetings in support of women’s suffrage with her daughter at her side.

Paul was well educated; she graduated from Swarthmore College in 1905. Two years later, she traveled to Birmingham, England to study social work at the Woodbrooke Settlement. It was there that Paul met Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel Pankhurst, radical suffragists who used unorthodox methods like heckling and rock throwing to bring attention to the cause of women’s suffrage. After Paul began participating in similar forms of protests with the Pankhursts, she was arrested and used hunger strikes to protest her confinement.

The methods used in England brought attention to the cause of women’s suffrage and when Paul returned to the United States in 1910, she began using the same militant methods as the English suffragists. She joined the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) while studying at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1912, Paul and other suffragists, including Lucy Burns, traveled to Washington, D.C., and organized a massive suffrage parade.

The Woman Suffrage Procession took place on March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration, to capitalize on all the reporters and tourists in town. The parade began peacefully, but after a few blocks the crowds of observers – mostly men –  heckled the marchers. They pressed into the streets, making it difficult for the parade to pass. Federal troops were called in to reestablish order and there was a congressional investigation.

Alice Paul

Alice Paul at work for the Congressional Union. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, National Woman’s Party Records)

After the parade, Paul’s methods were questioned by other suffragists. In response, Paul, with the help of Burns, formed a new group, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. The organization was not officially recognized as an associated member by the NAWSA, but it gained support through its newspaper, The Suffragist. 

In 1917, Paul and Burns organized the first picket of the White House to pressure the president to support a suffrage amendment. The group protested silently, holding signs that asked, “Mr. President, What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage?” and “How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?”. The response was initially positive, but after the United States entered World War I, their actions were viewed as unpatriotic. A few months later, police began arresting the protesters, and in October, police warned that protesters would face jail time. Despite the threat, women, including Paul, continued to gather outside the White House.

Over the course of the protests, roughly 500 of the 2,000 total participants were arrested and 168 were jailed at a workhouse. To protest her imprisonment, Paul organized a hunger strike during which she was force-fed and eventually forced into a sanitarium. Because of the media coverage of the treatment of the women, the public and politicians demanded the release of the women. When they were finally released, many were too weak to walk. Their harsh treatment, meant to weaken them and suppress their freedom of speech, ultimately helped build new attention to and support for their cause.

On Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was officially ratified; however, it did not guarantee equality. In 1923, Paul wrote the text for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which read, “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.” The amendment was introduced to Congress on Dec. 10, 1923, but it failed to pass. It was reintroduced in Congress every session until, in 1972, the amendment passed. Outside of Congress, it was only ratified by 35 of the required 38 states. Since then, the ERA has been reintroduced during every session of Congress, but has yet to pass.

Alice Paul continued to fight for the ERA and fought for international women’s rights until her death. She worked on a coalition that successfully added a sexual discrimination clause to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and began the World Women’s Party. She died in 1977, only a few miles from where she was born.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What does the women’s suffrage parade, organized by Alice Paul, suggest about the organization and tactics of the suffragists and their opposition at the time?
  2. Were the actions of Paul, Burns and other women outside the White House protected by the First Amendment? If not, why? If so, why were they arrested?
  3. What forms of discrimination do women continue to face today? Should today’s women’s rights advocates focus on passing the ERA or other laws/measures to combat discrimination? Explain.

Do you have an “Unsung Hero” that you would like included in the Digital Classroom? Visit our blog for more details on the Unsung Heroes Writing Contest.

The Newseum Digital Classroom is a free resource featuring primary sources, interactives, historic newsreels, videos and lesson plans that bring history, journalism and the First Amendment to life for students.

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