This is the grave of Alice Paul.
Born in 1885 in Mount Laurel Township, New Jersey, Paul grew up in a rich Quaker household with long roots in American life. Her grandfather had founded Swarthmore and so not surprisingly, this is where she went to college, graduating in 1905 with a biology degree. Well, there wasn’t going to be any advanced degrees for women in science. She could have taught kids, but that sounded deadly to her. So she went into the settlement house movement for awhile. By this time, working in the settlements was a pretty common path for wealthy well-educated young women. But after a year at the Rivington Street Settlement House, she decided that wasn’t for her either, figuring there were more effective ways to make change than social work, which is undoubtedly correct.
So Paul decided to get a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania and then went to England and studied at both the University of Birmingham and the London School of Economics. While there, she got involved in the suffrage movement and not the mild kind either, but rather the Pankhurst kind. She got right there on the front lines and served three separate jail stints for her direct action activism. By the time she returned to the U.S. in 1910, she was a hard core suffragist who would stop at nothing to gain that right for all women.
Now, the suffrage movement in the U.S. was pretty divided along lines of both age and tactics. The founding generation of suffragists were dying off and the new generation was coming of age as the Victorian era mores were fading. Should suffragists be “respectable” or should they fight using the tactics of more revolutionary social movements was an active debate in the movement? Paul was very committed to the latter method. She went back to Philadelphia, earned a PhD in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, and spent most of her time on the suffrage movement.
Paul was a fearless woman. In England, she was involved in the kind of direction action where the cops would beat the living hell out of you, woman or not. She was sentenced to hard labor. She was force-fed. None of this fazed her at all, despite the fact that her time in London jails ruined her health for the rest of her long life, causing her long-term gastrointestinal issues from the force feeding and making her subject to colds and pneumonia that forced not infrequent hospital stays. So when Paul returned to the U.S., she was not messing around. She joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association and immediately sought to change its tactics. NAWSA was committed to a state-by-state strategy. Paul wanted a national strategy. She and a few others fought for the idea of a constitutional amendment. This was totally rejected by NAWSA leadership, though they did realize Paul was someone they had to respect.
Paul then organized the 1913 women’s suffrage parade to protest Woodrow Wilson‘s inauguration and his opposition to their movement. This is known for a few things today. One is its sheer existence and the intensification of tactics. Another is the famous shot of Inez Mulholland on her horse leading the parade. The third is the attempted exclusion of Black suffragists and how Ida Wells ignored it and just hopped into the parade. Now, Paul was not outright opposed to Black suffrage. But it was no priority for her. She was initially interested in having Black suffragists as part of the parade. But when other whites protested, she acquiesced to their demands to segregate it.
Finally, Paul left NAWSA in 1916 and started the National Women’s Party. She was just too aggressive for the respectable part of the movement and she got sick of dealing with them. She started picketing the White House directly and that got her lots of attention. She and her followers continued this after the U.S. entered World War I, which brought down the new government propaganda machine upon them and the wrath of the many Americans who used this as an excuse to crack down on all kinds of dissent. She simply did not care what anyone thought about it. People started attacking these women and Paul fought back, eventually getting a seven month prison sentence in 1917. There, the women were brutalized by prison officials, which was horrible torture, but which they also used to publicize their case. Finally, Wilson agreed to support the movement. By this time, suffrage was expanding in many western and now northern states. In 1920, it finally succeeded with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. This led to the famous image of Paul at NWP headquarters with the banner announcing the victory.
Now, you’d think Paul would have remained at the forefront of the struggle for rights and dignity. She was all of 35 years old. But she would not. This is because Alice Paul, outside of a broad conception of women’s rights, was an extremely conservative individual. As she aged, she became an active ally of reactionary forces. Yes, she continued to push for the Equal Rights Amendment. But the ERA was controversial among feminist circles for the next several decades. A lot of feminists wondered what the ERA actually intended to accomplish. Unlike suffrage, it was quite vague as to the results.
Moreover, Paul had placed herself firmly in opposition to labor feminism. Now, this leads us into areas today that are tricky for modern feminists to parse. A big part of the feminist movement in the early 20th century was based around carve outs in the lack of labor regulation for women. Because women were seen as mothers first, including by lost of feminists, there were attempts to provide labor restrictions so they wouldn’t have the “freedom” to work 16 hour days in dangerous conditions. The Supreme Court followed up its loathsome Lochner ruling of 1905 with Muller v. Oregon in 1908 that allowed some restrictions on women’s labor. In an era where anyone fighting on any issue within labor rights never ever won, this was a huge victory. For a lot of labor feminists, this was a first step toward creating more equitable labor conditions generally.
Paul and the NWP opposed all of this. They believed that any special category for women was discriminatory. That makes sense in a twenty-first century context but it definitely does not in an early twentieth century context. Paul became an active supporter of corporate attempts to repeal what laws to protect women workers were there. This made people such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins despise Paul. Moreover, as the nation moved in the 1930s toward broader labor rights for all workers….Paul still actively sided with corporations to oppose all labor law!
So Eleanor and Perkins and other labor feminists hated Perkins with the passion of a thousand suns and they refused to support the ERA for this reason. Toward the end of their lives, they realized conditions had changed and begrudgingly lent their support to the effort, but this is decades later. Paul’s single-mindedness had its place. She occasionally pops again in her long life doing useful things, such as providing support for Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or pushed the early United Nations to make women’s issues part of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
These are good things. But let’s put it this way–about 10 years ago, there was a major new biography of Paul. And…..the authors just stopped it in 1920. Talking about the last half-century of her life just is too depressing if you want to create any kind of heroic narrative. It’s the story of a single-minded but in some ways quite conservative woman who found herself out of touch with new trends in society, one who maintained enough relevance that occasionally she found herself useful again, but one who mostly bemoaned contemporary liberalism and all it brought such as worker rights and a limitation of what employers could do.
Paul lived forever, only dying in 1977, at the age of 92. The last 57 years of her life are not super great but the first 35 are quite remarkable.
Alice Paul is buried at Westfield Friends Burial Ground, Cinnaminson, New Jersey.
If you would like this series to visit other suffragists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Harriet Stanton Blatch is in The Bronx and Ethel Smith is in Washington, D.C. Previous posts in this series are archived here.