Equality of Rights Under the Law Shall Not Be Denied or Abridged By the United States Or Any State On Account of Sex.
–Alice Paul, Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, Introduced by the National Woman’s Party, 1923.
Alice Paul, chief strategist for the militant wing of the suffrage movement and author of the Equal Rights Amendment, was born on January 11, 1885 in Moorestown, New Jersey. The product of an upper middle-class Quaker family, Paul attended Swarthmore College and earned a doctorate in social work from the University of Pennsylvania.
Alice Paul joined the woman suffrage movement while pursuing graduate studies in England. There, she was schooled in the militant tactics of Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union. Upon her return to the United States in 1910, Paul found the suffrage movement in need of new ways to capture public and press interest. In November 1912 Paul attended the annual convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and offered her services. NAWSA accepted her offer and made her chairman of their Congressional Committee.
Charged with maintaining NAWSA’s presence in Washington, D.C., her first task was organizing a parade and pageant designed to draw attention to the suffrage movement. Timed to coincide with festivities surrounding the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, the event resulted in a near riot as crowds surrounded and at times engulfed parade participants. Nonetheless, the parade on March 3, 1913 highlighted the suffrage cause at a time when the issue was falling from public consciousness.
In 1913, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Crystal Eastman, and others organized the Congressional Union (CU), later known as the National Woman’s Party (NWP). The group’s goal was ratification of a suffrage amendment to the United States Constitution. Until the late 1910s, NAWSA mainly worked on the state level, urging each state to pass legislation permitting women to vote.
The party in power has told us that we must get suffrage state by state or not at all. It is hard to realize that we do not have to accept that, that we can take a shorter, better route. It is difficult to believe that we can demand and make ourselves heard…do you want justice for American women? We hope that you do; because swiftly and simply and directly, you can get what you want.
–Miss Beulah Amidon, The Suffragist, October 7, 1916.
Sensing the Congressional Union was moving in a more radical direction, NAWSA ousted the CU almost immediately following its formation. Over the next seven years, Paul and her followers relentlessly pursued a Constitutional Amendment. Their policy of holding the party in power responsible for the Amendment’s success contrasted sharply with NAWSA’s commitment to political neutrality. In the 1916 election, for example, the National Woman’s Party campaigned against Wilson’s Democrats in states where women could vote.
Even World War failed to divert the National Woman’s Party from the suffrage campaign. Instead of calling a truce with President Wilson, suffragists picketed his White House with signs demanding “Kaiser Wilson” extend democracy to women. These peaceful, if abrasive, demonstrations ended with arrest and imprisonment. Behind bars, Paul and other suffragists continued their protest with a prison hunger strike and eventually were force fed.
During a time when print media was one of the primary means of influencing public opinion, a number of women’s organizations created their own publications. One of the more well known of these titles includes The Suffragist, the official journal of The National Woman’s Party. Not only did these periodicals improve organizing and spread awareness, they also illuminated the differences in strategy between various groups campaigning for suffrage. It is important to note that not all the press attention was positive. There were a number of anti-suffrage publications, as well as a number of critiques of the suffrage movement and it’s leaders in the mainstream press. For example, in an article in The Nation (1921), Freda Kirchwey writes about the failure of the suffrage movement, and specifically Alice Paul, to consider the perspectives and concerns of black women.
Following adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, Alice Paul continued to fight for women’s equality. After earning a law degree in 1922, she wrote the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), also known as the Lucretia Mott amendment. The National Woman’s Party proposed the amendment in 1923 as a means of ending discrimination on the basis of gender. The ERA passed both houses of Congress fifty years later when a new generation of feminists took up the cause. However, three-fourths of the states failed to ratify the amendment by the 1982 deadline. Active in the movement until her death in 1977, Alice Paul lived to see enormous change in the rights and status of American women.
The National Woman’s Party remains active to this day, working from their headquarters at the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, one of the oldest residential properties on Capitol Hill.
- National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection contains material from the NAWSA Collection, donated to the Library of Congress by Carrie Chapman Catt in 1938. Browse the Subjects or Contributors index to find material documenting the suffrage movement in the United States. Access the following materials through this online collection:
- By 1917, both the NWP and NAWSA were pushing hard for a federal suffrage amendment. Read Woman Suffrage By Federal Constitutional Amendment to gain insight into the arguments for and against the federal amendment.
- Some women’s rights organizations opposed the ERA on grounds it would undermine labor legislation that improved working conditions for women and children. Ethel M. Smith outlines this argument in Toward Equal Rights for Men and Women, published in 1929 by the Committee on the Legal Status of Women, National League of Women Voters.
- Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party: This collection includes photographs that document the National Woman’s Party push for ratification of the 19th Amendment as well as its later campaign for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Included are a timeline of key events in the history of the NWP as well as essays on major figures of the Party and tactics and techniques used during their suffrage campaign.
- American Women: A Gateway to Library of Congress Resources for the Study of Women’s History and Culture in the United States: Simultaneously a guide, an online magnet for digitized women’s history materials drawn from a plethora of Library sources, and a gateway, this is an innovative addition to the Library’s online resources. One section of the guide describes the “Women’s Suffrage collections held by the Manuscript Division”.
- Miller NAWSA Suffrage Scrapbooks, 1897-1911: These scrapbooks document the activities of the Geneva (NY) Political Equality Club, founded in 1897 by Elizabeth Smith Miller and her daughter Anne Fitzhugh Miller, as well as efforts at the state, national and international levels to win the vote for women. Alice Paul describes the treatment she endured while imprisoned in London for participating in a suffragette demonstration in the article “Alice Paul Talks”.
- Today in History features on woman’s suffrage include: the 1854 Ohio Woman’s Rights Convention; the 1869 decision by the Wyoming Territory to grant women the right to vote; the 1884 address by Susan B. Anthony to the House Judiciary Committee; and, the 1917 arrest of suffragists in front of the White House.
- For insight into women’s roles as family purchasing agents and workers in an expanding consumer society examine the collection Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era, 1921-1929. Read Selling Mrs. Consumer, The Consumer Viewpoint, and The Saleslady.