This week, Daniel looks back on the life and work of Alice Paul in making greater strides toward equality for women both in the US and UK.
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It is to the substantial discredit of humankind that the struggle for gender equality persists in our time. That a little over half of all people are still arbitrarily disenfranchised in copious ways is a quite baffling feature of even our so-called advanced societies. Nonetheless, opposition to this discrimination is more widespread and dogged than ever before. Advancements in communications technology in the past few decades have given more women a platform to struggle and organize, and have provided the movement increased internationality and broader appeal. In its nascence, however, the women’s rights movement was more restricted by geography. For this reason, it is remarkable that the British and American movements developed in similar ways and roughly in tandem. It was largely thanks to a remarkable woman, and her name was Alice Paul.
First, it is worth noting that the landscapes in the United States and in Britain in the early 1900s were not, by any means, identical. The key issue being contested by women’s organizations was women’s suffrage in both cases. Race and class dynamics, though, were completely different on either side of the Atlantic—race being a definitive part of everyday life in America, class in Britain. There is more, of course. But the similarity in question refers to the organization and tactics used in the respective pushes for women’s suffrage.
Image: Cover to the program for the 1913 Womens Suffrage Procession, which Alice Paul organized (public domain)
Born in 1885, Paul grew up in the Quaker tradition in a small town in New Jersey, and was exposed to the notion of equality from a young age. She was involved in student government at Swarthmore, but was not notably influential. By her own account, she was conscious of the injustices in her world when she completed her postgraduate studies in 1907 and set sail for England to study social work, but she was not particularly active or focused. This would soon change.
The development of the movement towards women’s suffrage in Britain into a more militant campaign happened a few years earlier than in America, where activists were still writing polite letters and holding conventions. The Woman’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded in 1906 and was at the forefront of this militancy. Paul heard one of its leaders, Christabel Pankhurst, talking at the University of Birmingham, abandoned social work immediately, moved to London, and took up getting in the face of corrupt governments run by sexist old men full-time.
Photo: Alice Paul (public domain)
The WSPU used civil disobedience to convey their message. They were provocative in their protestation, throwing bricks through the windows of prominent buildings and standing their ground until they were arrested. This was highly effective but extremely taxing for its proponents. When they were imprisoned, Paul and her fellow suffragettes would frequently go on hunger strikes; prompting prison guards to have doctors force-feed them. This is extremely traumatic, dangerous, and left Paul severely debilitated on several occasions. Even so, she was a fearless and persistent warrior for her cause. She was imprisoned multiple times.
Her last stint in jail, however, was enough to send her back across the ocean. She was badly ill, and wanted to continue her recovery at home. This was 1910, and the American movement was still a different animal. She began pursuing a Ph.D, and was initially involved with the National Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). But she was frustrated by the slow pace of meaningful change, as NAWSA set out to get women the vote state by state and their tactics were much tamer than Paul had become used to in Britain. She soon split off and formed her own organization called the National Women’s Party (NWP). They pursued a constitutional amendment, and called upon the same forceful approach as their British sisters.
Image: Alice Paul was honored in 2012 on a $10 gold coin (public domain)
They continued to push as World War I began, and picketed Woodrow Wilson’s White House as part of the famous Silent Sentinels campaign. As a result, many of the protesters, including Paul, were arrested and endured horrendous abuse during their time in prison. Paul remained steadfast as ever, went through beatings and yet more force-feedings, and emerged to lead the movement down the last stretch to the Nineteenth Amendment—finally granting American women full suffrage almost a decade before Britain did the same.
Instead of going into a well-earned retirement, Paul led the NWP for more than half a century more, and made certain that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was inclusive of women. She died in 1977 at the age of 92. Women like Alice Paul have affected enormous strides forward for women’s rights, but it is worth taking pause to remember that there is still some way to go. Consider that Alice Paul is not a name that many people recognize, despite being one of the best educated, most influential women of the twentieth century. Listen to the language that certain American presidential candidates still use to talk about women and the restrictive policies they advocate. The fight for equality is far from won. But thanks to Alice Paul, the fight has momentum and cross-border support beyond anything she could have imagined.