Born into a Quaker family in Moorestown, New Jersey, Paul was raised in an intellectual and religious environment. Her forebears included on her mother’s side William Penn and on her father’s side the Winthrops of Massachusetts; her maternal grandfather was one of the founders of Swarthmore College. Paul graduated from Swarthmore in 1905 and then attended the New York School of Philanthropy (later Columbia University School of Social Work), the University of Pennsylvania, and a training school for Quakers in Woodbridge, England. She remained in England from 1907 to 1910.
It was during those years that Paul, while studying and working as a case worker for a London settlement house, served her apprenticeship for what became her vocation: the struggle for women’s rights. She was enlisted by England’s militant suffragists Emmeline and Christobel Pankhurst. Her education as an activist was acquired through a series of arrests, imprisonments, hunger strikes, and forced feedings. She learned how to generate publicity for the cause and how to capitalize on that publicity.
Paul enrolled again at the University of Pennsylvania on her return to the United States in 1910. There she earned a Ph.D. in sociology and began to situate herself in the American suffrage movement. In 1912 she launched her full-time suffrage career. Working first within the National American Woman Suffrage Association (nawsa), Paul gathered about her a group of young women, many of whom had also worked with the Pankhursts in England and who were willing to depart from the association’s conservative tactics.
Paul broke with the nawsa in 1914 and cofounded the Congressional Union, dedicated to seeking a federal constitutional amendment for woman suffrage. In 1916, she founded the National Woman’s party. She led pickets at the White House and Congress and despite America’s entry into World War I refused to abandon these tactics. She and her colleagues were arrested and imprisoned; they engaged in hunger strikes and endured forced feedings at the hands of authorities. Ultimately her tactics, as well as persuasion from Carrie Chapman Catt, induced President Woodrow Wilson to make a federal suffrage amendment a war measures priority, a stand he had previously refused to take. Paul was a pivotal force in the passage and ratification in 1920 of the Nineteenth Amendment.
In 1923, Paul proposed an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. Overcoming the opposition of women’s organizations who feared the loss of protective legislation, she helped gain acceptance of an era plank in the platforms of both major political parties in 1944. She continued to work actively out of the National Woman’s party headquarters in Washington, D.C., until failing health forced her to relocate to the Connecticut countryside in 1972. Even then she continued to provide inspiration to new generations of women’s rights activists until her death in 1977.
Throughout her life, Alice Paul remained personally conservative and professionally demanding of both herself and her colleagues. She did not relinquish power readily nor could she be easily persuaded to depart from the methods and tactics she had learned from the Pankhursts in England. But her vision for women always transcended her conservatism and rigidity. ‘I think if we get freedom for women, then they are probably going to do a lot of things that I wish they wouldn’t do,’ she said shortly before her death. ‘But it seems to me that isn’t our business to say what they should do with it. It is our business to see that they get it.’
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.