Born into a wealthy Quaker family in 1885, Alice Paul followed their long tradition of service to the community. After her early education at a private Quaker school, she graduated from Swarthmore College, which her grandfather had helped to found. Next she moved on to the University of Pennsylvania, hoping to discover how she wanted to spend her life. After trying social work in New York City for a year, she decided that would not be her route. Instead she traveled to England to study at the London School of Economics.

Alice Paul

While in London, she met Christabel Pankhurst and her mother Emmeline, two leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the leading suffragette organization in the UK. Both of the Pankhursts recognized Paul’s talent for giving speeches and for organizing. Soon she was invited to join a deputation of women to visit Prime Minister Asquith. The contemptuous response with which the group was met—the women were barred from entering Parliament to present their petition and were threatened with arrest—converted Paul into an enthusiastic supporter of votes for women. She soon agreed to join Christabel for a tour of Scotland and northern England.

As Paul soon learned, the tactics of British suffragettes were far more confrontational than anything American women had tried. In June 1909, Marion Wallace Dunlop staged the first women’s hunger strike by refusing to eat until she and the others were granted status as political prisoners. Dunlop soon grew weak from hunger and authorities were afraid to keep her in prison and so released her early. Other suffragettes realized that the hunger strike was an effective weapon to draw attention and support to their movement.

When a group of suffragettes, including Paul, were arrested after attempting to disrupt a speech by Lloyd George, they were arrested and ordered to pay fines or go to prison. All of them chose prison. They were denied status as political prisoners and ordered to change into prison uniforms. When they refused to comply, they were stripped naked by female guards. This, of course, led to a hunger strike. As the women grew weaker and visibly lost weight, authorities feared that a death would reflect badly upon the government. Finally, doctors were brought in to forcibly feed the women through tubes inserted into their noses.  After five days of this, Alice Paul was released; others were freed during the next few days. All of the women were weakened by the ordeal and Paul suffered for years afterward from the physical effects of the force feeding.

Now completely dedicated to the cause of suffrage, Paul decided it was time to return to America and work for the cause there. She sailed back home in 1910 to the great relief of her mother who had been fretting for weeks over when she would return. Instead of plunging immediately into suffrage work, Paul decided to re-enroll in the University of Pennsylvania to work on a doctorate. While she wrote her dissertation on women’s legal status in the United States, Paul also spoke to Quaker groups about her suffragist activities. She soon joined the American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and became an influential member. 

Although NAWSA had chosen to fight for suffrage on a state-by-state basis, Alice Paul advocated attempting to pass a federal women’s suffrage amendment as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had advocated years earlier. A major factor in choosing to aim for the state-by-state was to keep the support of Southern states, many of which wanted to maintain their repression of all African American voters, both men and women.

Alice Paul’s first major project was a suffrage parade held on March 13,1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration. Suffrage groups from all over the country sent representatives to Washington to participate in what was planned as a triumphant march up Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. Paul worked hard to ensure that the parade was given permission to use that major street, despite attempts by the DC authorities to move the group to a less conspicuous location. Eventually Paul got her way and even obtained the promise of the police commissioner to keep other traffic off the parade route.

At the last minute, suffrage delegations from the various states were told that their groups should be separated by race with African Americans at the rear of the procession and white women up front. This was an effort to keep the support of Southern states, but the order was ignored by a few marchers including Ida B. Wells who triumphantly walked at the head of the Illinois delegation with the white women. There is some confusion about whether or not Alice Paul supported the segregation decision.

Despite all the planning, the march did not go as expected. The event was led by mounted suffrage leaders, most notably Inez Milholland riding a white horse, a scene that was described by the New York Times as “one of the most impressively beautiful spectacles ever staged in this country”. Despite their promises, the authorities provided no police protection and people crowded onto the street holding up the parade and preventing women from moving. Police stood by doing nothing. Finally National Guard troops and Boy Scouts as well as some male volunteers were able to clear the street and allow the women to finish their march.

Inez Milholland

The 1913 procession was a triumph for the suffrage women. More than half a million people are estimated to have watched it, but the stain of the segregated march has lingered. The event is a sad comment on the contrasting event led by Lucretia Mott in 1838 during which the women of both races linked arms and walked together out of a Philadelphia meeting to evade hecklers in the group.

The 1913 march succeeded in bringing suffrage to the forefront of publicity, but years of continuing agitation and political maneuvering were needed before a national suffrage bill was finally passed in 1920. You can read more about Alice Paul’s long fight to get votes for women in Alice Paul: Claiming Power (2014) by J.D. Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry.