In 1775, American colonists decided to teach the English a lesson about equality and political rights. They tarred and feathered loyalists, burned royal governors in effigy, and destroyed British property before finally taking up arms in the cause of independence. In 1907, Alice Paul went to London to study social work, but the young American learned far more from her English hosts about how to advance equality and political rights for women. Alongside militant English suffragettes, Paul smashed windows, harassed British statesmen, and staged prison hunger strikes. Then she brought these lessons back to America and the gates of the White House.
Alice Paul was born in New Jersey to a family of Hicksite Quakers; from them she acquired a firm belief in women's equality and Christian social responsibility. Throughout her youth and early adulthood, Alice was sent to the best schools, enrolling at Swarthmore in 1901 and graduating with a degree in biology in 1905. She earned a master's in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1907, and then left for England to explore ways to apply her Quaker beliefs to a life of social activism at the Woodebrooke Quaker Study Centre in England.
While in England, Paul attended lectures at the University of Birmingham and the London School of Economics. But her most significant education occurred in the streets of London after meeting Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. The mother and daughter were leaders within England's women's rights movement. But unlike the activists Paul had met in America, these suffragettes believed that voting rights would be won only through confrontational tactics. Frustrated with the moderate strategies employed for years—petition drives and prayer meetings—the Pankhursts founded the Women's Social and Political Union. The organization staged dramatic confrontations with political figures, disrupted public events, and smashed windows to draw attention.
For Paul, these confrontational strategies were a revelation—and something of a relief. She formerly believed that rights must be pursued through debate and oratory, but believing herself to be a poor speaker, she doubted the effectiveness of her own contributions. From the Pankhursts she learned that a message's greatest power lay in the speaker's commitment, not her words. She was moved by the willingness of suffragettes to risk prison in order to draw momentary attention to their cause. And so she embraced their methods.
By the time Paul left England, she boasted 48 broken windows and multiple arrests. On one occasion, she and a colleague sneaked into a political dinner by pretending to be cleaning women. Climbing to the gallery, they smashed a stained glass window with their shoes before shouting, "Votes for women!" She also spent time in jail where she drew even more attention to the suffragette cause by demanding to be treated as a political prisoner.
Political prisoners were subject to different rules than other inmates. They were not searched, were housed in separate cell blocks, were not dressed in inmate garb, and were not force-fed during hunger strikes. The authorities denied Paul and other members of WSPU this status. When the suffragettes staged hunger strikes, they were force-fed through tubes inserted into their nostrils. But the decision backfired on prison authorities. The description of young women being forcibly disrobed by male prison guards in order to dress them in prison uniforms, and the even more sensational accounts of feeding tubes jammed into their stomachs, offended British readers.
Paul returned to America in 1910, and immediately joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association. But Paul's relationship with the more moderate organization was a tense one. The NAWSA, led by Carrie Chapman Catt, believed that the vote would be won state by state; Paul believed that suffragettes should pursue one national amendment to ensure the right to vote throughout the country. NAWSA cultivated ties with political organizations and figures believed sympathetic to its cause, such as the Democratic Party and Woodrow Wilson; Paul argued that the party in power should be held accountable for existing conditions and confronted, regardless of any claims of philosophical sympathy. As a result, Paul left the NAWSA in 1914 to found a more radical organization that would become the National Woman's Party.
With her newly founded party, Paul set about applying the strategies she had learned in England. Rather than lobby and petition, rather than try to cultivate political support among influential Democrats, she launched a campaign of relentless public protest. "Silent sentinels" were dispatched daily to stand vigil outside the White House. Carrying banners asking "How Long Must Woman Wait for Liberty," small groups of women offered daily and persistent testimony to the power of their convictions.
Initially, President Wilson responded with good humor—on one rainy day he invited the women inside. (They refused.) But as their protest continued, he grew less tolerant. And when the United States entered World War I, he and many others complained that the protest should be set aside for the sake of wartime unity. Paul, however, did just the opposite. The old banners were replaced with new ones asking "Kaiser Wilson" when their rights would be acknowledged.
Following the increasingly provocative attacks, Wilson's patience with the protestors grew thin. Members of the public also reacted negatively. One sentinel described the "circle of little boys who gathered about . . . first, spitting at them, calling them names, making personal comments; then the gathering of gangs of young hoodlums who encourage the boys to further insults; then more and more crowds; more and more insults. . . . Sometimes the crowd would edge nearer and nearer, until there was but a foot of smothering, terror-fraught space between them and the pickets." Local police chose to diffuse the situation not by restraining the hostile crowds, but by arresting the sentinels for "obstructing traffic." But this largely played into the hands of Paul and the NWP, for it only increased public awareness of their campaign and created more sensational stories of rough treatment by the police and harsh prison sentences. During the fall of 1917, Washington police arrested more than 500 sentinels, and 168 women were sent to jail. Many first-timers were given short sentences, but some were sent to the Occuquan Workhouse for 30-60 days. And a handful, including Paul herself, were sentenced to seven months in prison.34
The length of the sentences shocked the public; months in jail seemed excessive for "obstructing traffic"—much less exercising rights of speech. Moreover, the accounts of the women's treatment offended genteel readers. Paul and the others demanded that they be recognized as political prisoners by refusing to work in the prison factories and refusing to eat until the demand was met. But authorities force-fed the women and housed them among the general inmate population. Even their critics believed that placing middle-class women into the same cells as prostitutes and common criminals was inappropriate.
With public dissatisfaction with the handling of the sentinels rising, President Wilson finally met their demands in 1918. He minimized the significance of his conversion—he had always supported women's suffrage, he said, but had believed it best left to individual states to decide. However, now he argued that a national suffrage amendment should be advanced as a war measure. Since the war in Europe was "a people's war," it was fitting that "women shall play their part in affairs alongside men and upon an equal footing."35
Wilson's full reasons for embracing women's suffrage were more complex. By 1918, seventeen states had enfranchised women; a national amendment might ensure that those states voted Democratic in the fall congressional elections. He also believed that women would support his postwar vision of a gentle peace. Sharing the rather sexist views of many male supporters of women's suffrage, he believed that women were more likely to endorse the non-punitive objectives within the Fourteen Points.
With Wilson's support, the Nineteenth Amendment was furiously debated in Congress in 1919. To rally public opinion for the amendment, the National Woman's Party launched the "Prison Special" tour in February 1919. Recently released sentinels traveled the country on a train labeled the "Democracy Limited." Responding to the growing public support, the House of Representatives passed the amendment in May; the Senate voted approval in June.
While ratification progressed rapidly at first, opposition to the amendment in the South threatened to prevent its addition to the Constitution. But on 18 August 1920, Tennessee legislator Harry Burn changed his no vote to a yes. (Why? Because his mother told him to!) This broke the tie in the state legislature, making Tennessee the thirty-sixth and final state needed to ratify the amendment.
Alice Paul did not retire from public activism after ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. She drafted the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment introduced in every session of Congress between 1923 and 1972. In 1938, she helped found the World Women's Party that lobbied successfully for the creation of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. In 1964, she was instrumental in securing a gender discrimination provision in the Civil Rights Act. And in her spare time, she earned three law degrees to complement the Ph.D. in economics she completed in 1912.
Paul continued to work for women's issues well into her eighties. Yet, after suffering a stroke at age 89, she spoke apologetically of being "useless" in the ongoing battle for women's rights. Her misplaced feelings of guilt might be explained by the social ethic she attributed to her mother: "When you put your hand to the plow," she once said, "you can't put it down until you get to the end of the row."36