Alice Paul was a renowned activist and political leader. She worked ferociously throughout her 92 years of living to address the many political inequalities facing women in the U.S. and the U.K. For the first 35 years of her life, Paul, along with other women in the United States, was denied the right to vote.
Born in New Jersey to a wealthy Quaker family, Paul attended Swarthmore College and then the University of Pennsylvania, first for a Master’s degree and then after a political awakening in the U.K., a PhD in sociology examining the legal position of women in Pennsylvania.
While living in London in the early 1900s, Paul encountered the British suffrage movement. She became a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) working directly with Emmeline Pankhurst and fellow U.S. activist Lucy Burns amongst many other activists, to fight for equal legal status for women in England and Scotland. Learning tactics of civil disobedience from Pankhurst and her fellow suffragists, Paul participated in numerous demonstrations. She was arrested seven times and incarcerated three times. She returned to the U.S. in 1910, to work with the suffrage movement in the U.S. and to recover her health as it had been severely compromised by the brutal treatment and numerous force-feedings she was subjected to in jail.
Her activities and her influence as a suffrage leader in the U.S. are well documented. She infused a radicality into the American suffrage movement working first with the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and then with the National Women’s Party (NWP), a group she founded with Lucy Burns in 1916. Paul exercised critical influence in initiating and organizing numerous public protests, marches, petitions that contributed to the successful ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
It is important to note that although the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, many Black and Native American women continued to be denied the right to vote. Other women of color with dual cultural backgrounds were also denied the right to vote via laws excluding them from naturalized citizenship. Native Americans weren’t federally recognized as citizens of the U.S. until 1924 and after that Native Americans continued to be denied voting rights by many state laws claiming that indigenous people were not legally “citizens” of the state if they were living on reservation land. Many Black women were denied the right to vote through restrictive practices such as poll taxes, literacy tests as well as through violent intimidation and threat. The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965, 45 years after the 19th Amendment, put a legal end to many of these practices and state exemptions.
Paul continued her activism after 1920. In 1923 she authored an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. And in 1964 was instrumental in adding the protection of women to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Despite the fact that Alice Paul is not recognized in a monument in the city of Philadelphia, her contributions to U.S. politics are recognized in many ways. Her birthplace of Paulsdale is a National Historic Landmark and the site of the Alice Paul Institute. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1979. In 2016, Barack Obama renamed the Washington D.C. headquarters of the National Women’s Party the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, raising its status from Landmark to Monument and reconnecting Paul’s contributions to the movement. In 2020, the U.S. $10 bill will be redesigned to commemorate the women’s suffrage movement and an image of Paul along with one of Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott will be featured on the bill.