The Movement as a Mosaic: Alice Paul and Woman Suffrage

Our new exhibit “Rightfully Hers” opens in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery in the National Archives Building on May 10, 2019. Today’s post comes from Michael J. Hancock in the National Archives History Office.

Rediscovery identifier:28110
Women Marching in Suffrage Parade, Washington, DC, 1913. (National Archives Identifier 24520426)

I always feel the movement is a sort of mosaic. Each of us puts in one little stone, and then you get a great mosaic at the end. 

Alice Paul uttered those words a century ago while leading a women’s movement that caught the attention of the public and President Woodrow Wilson. Equally significant as prominent women like Susan B. Anthony or Lucretia Mott, Paul played an integral role in lobbying for a Federal constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote.

Alice Paul, 1918. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Born in 1885, Alice Stokes Paul was raised as a Hicksite Quaker and followed the central tenets of her faith including plain speech, simplicity, and gender equality. The oldest of her siblings, she was raised on a comfortable New Jersey farm owned by her father William Paul, a successful businessman, and his wife, Tacie.

Paul was introduced to the philosophy of the women’s movement at an early age, when she accompanied her mother to National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) meetings. She was highly educated and earned degrees in sociology, biology, economics, and law, making her a valuable asset in the struggle for women’s rights.

Her education as an activist began in England, when she met the Pankhursts, a family of vocal suffragists, while she was studying social work. Shunning the more conventional methods of petitions and prayers, the Pankhurst women employed more radical tactics to bring attention to the suffrage movement, including heckling and damaging property. Having been arrested a number of times and staged hunger strikes in protest of their detainment, the women gained national attention with their exploits and their slogan, “Deeds not words.”

Paul returned to the United States in 1910 with the intention of re-energizing the suffrage movement at home and quickly settled in Washington, DC. Injecting all of her energy into NAWSA, she and her close friend Lucy Burns organized a large women’s suffrage march in the capital on the eve of President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, hoping to attract national attention.

View of the Woman Suffrage Parade from the Willard Hotel, Washington DC, from the Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee of the District of Columbia of the United States Senate, March 4, 1913. (Publications of the U.S. Government, National Archives)

Undeterred by crowds hurling obscenities, insults, and violence, even as police looked on, the parade became national news and the topic of suffrage was on the minds of most Americans.

In a disagreement with NAWSA’s strategy of pressing state governments to change voting laws one-by-one, Alice Paul established the National Women’s Party in 1916 with the expressed intention of securing a constitutional amendment to achieve women’s voting rights.

In 1917, Paul and her constituents organized a daily picketing campaign in front of the White House, where members known as the Silent Sentinels stood silently at the gates.

Suffragists picket the White House, Washington, DC, July 1917. (National Archives Identifier 533782)

Holding signs and banners with taglines like “The time has come to Conquer or Submit, for us There Can Be But One Choice. We have made it,” their protest was tolerated until America entered World War I in April, at which point they encountered pushback from all sides accusing them of being unpatriotic and challenging a President during wartime.

Resolution adopted by suffragists of the Fifth Congressional District of Michigan, concerning treatment of the suffragists at Occoquan, 4/19/1918. (National Archives Identifier 74884416)

They were subsequently arrested for “blocking traffic” and failure to pay their fines. Paul and other suffragists were imprisoned at the Washington, DC, jail and the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Virginia, where they were subject to deplorable conditions and beatings.

Considering herself a political prisoner, Paul began a hunger strike. Guards acted swiftly—they deprived her of sleep, threatened to commit her into an insane asylum, and eventually force-fed her by shoving tubes down her throat.  

Public support for the movement began to galvanize when reports of their treatment became widely known, and the outrage it sparked led to their release in November 1917. President Wilson surrendered to public and political pressure and pledged his support for a constitutional amendment. Ratification of the 19th Amendment was finally realized in 1920.

Alice Paul’s fight to win passage of the 19th Amendment accomplished much more than giving the women the right to vote. A Federal court threw out the charges against the picketers, and permits to demonstrate in the nation’s capital, once denied, were reluctantly granted.

Paul continued to fight for women’s rights for the rest of her life, such as drafting the Equal Rights Amendment, advocating for the creation of a permanent UN Commission on the Status of Women, and adding protection for women in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Paul, and women like her, set in motion legal precedents that empowered future generations of women to fight for equal rights. 

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