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Alice Paul, Women’s Suffrage & the 116th U.S. Congress
A century since passage of the 19th amendment, 2019 is another historic year for American women. We’re thinking of the foremothers who made it possible
By Courtney Suciu
If asked to name the heroes of women’s suffrage in the U.S., the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony would probably come to mind – and for good reason. In the mid-19th century, they were among the foremothers of a movement that would, decades years later, result in the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.
But the efforts of these early campaigners would have not had such a successful outcome if not for those who came after them, and kept the fight moving forward.
Enter Alice Paul, the militant suffragette and influential social activist (she led the first picket of the White House and was a proponent of nonviolent protest) who took what Stanton and Anthony started all the way to the legislature – twice, when you count the Equal Rights Amendment.
Unfortunately, many of us had never even heard of her. For journalist Mary Walton, that was a problem. So, she set out to write A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot, one of the first books to chronicle the courageous life and accomplishments of its extraordinary subject.
We take a closer look at how Walton’s book came to be, and why Paul is a critical figure for us to remember, especially at a time when her legacy lives on in the record number of women recently sworn into the U. S. Congress.
Discovering an almost forgotten feminist revolutionary
In a recent use case1 for ProQuest, Walton recalled attending a dinner party in 2005 with Gene Roberts, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she had been a reporter in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Roberts urged writers he knew to “undertake a book about a trailblazing suffragist, a pioneer of nonviolent resistance,” she wrote. “Her name was Alice Paul and I’d never heard of her. And as it happened, I was between books.”
“’Tell me about Alice Paul,’ I said to him.”
Shortly after this conversation, Walton found herself “spooling through reels of microfilm records of [Paul’s] National Woman’s Party,” and realizing that she “had a powerful story to tell.” But Walton’s literary agent “was not interested in the life of a little-known suffragist.” Despite this hiccup, Walton pushed ahead and “soon I had a book proposal, a new agent, and, in time, a publisher.”
A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot came out in 2010 to rave reviews. “This story is a reminder of the perseverance, the gall, the intelligence it took to obtain what now seems an inalienable right, an obvious pillar of any democracy,” wrote Susan Salter Reynolds in the Los Angeles Times2.
“Part of the genius of the book,” she added, “lies in Walton's quiet analysis of the methods used by the National American Woman Suffrage Assn. and the National Woman's Party, founded by Paul in 1916.”
Walton admitted in her use case, “had it not been for access to the NWPP [National Woman’s Party Papers] my book would not exist.”
Now available digitally from ProQuest History Vault*, the NWPP provided Walton with rare, first-hand information about the perilous movement to ensure American women an equal say in their government, including pickets at the White House, numerous arrests and instances of police brutality, hunger strikes and violent forced-feedings.
In addition, Walton said the NWPP provided details on:
the day-to-day business of raising money, wooing supporters and snuffing out fires. Here, too, are riveting accounts from the National Woman’s Party’s youthful organizers who fanned out across the country. They penned detailed description of the obstacles they faced, from travel on primitive roads to ridicule from male politicians to snowstorms and withering heat.
“Such a mild-mannered girl”
“Born in 1885 into a strict Quaker family, as a young girl Alice Paul attended suffrage meetings with her mother, Tacie,” Walton explained in the use case, “but it was not until she was a student in England that votes for women became her calling.”
Paul grew up in New Jersey and got her bachelor’s degree in biology from Swarthmore College, followed with a Master of Arts from the University of Philadelphia. Her course work focused on political science, sociology and economics. She continued her studies at the University of Birmingham in England and there she first heard the controversial activist Christabel Pankhurst speak about women’s right to vote.
When Pankhurst “was hooted down by male students, Paul was appalled,” Walton wrote. Her experience with England’s militant crusaders for women’s rights radicalized her and “she became a ‘heart and soul convert’ to the suffrage cause.”
Back in America, Paul returned to the University of Pennsylvania to complete her Ph.D. in sociology. “And then she gave up what had seemed to be a promising academic career to enter the fray of suffrage politics,” according to Walton.
It was a path that met with disapproval from her family and childhood neighbors. Walton wrote that reporters found Paul’s mother “at a loss to explain her daughter’s behavior. ‘I cannot understand how all of this came about,’ she said. ‘Alice is such a mild-mannered girl.’”
In 1919, the Atlanta Constitution3 visited Mooretown, New Jersey, the hometown of “America’s leading suffrage firebrand,” to meet with those who knew Paul as a girl. A “Mrs. L” told the publication, “Alice seldom comes home, and is not the kind to care about card parties and dances. Her idea of a good time seems to be hunger-striking in a dirty jail.”
Another former neighbor, “a dear old Quaker lady” “nearly wept” at a reporter’s mention of Alice. “’I cannot talk about it; it is too dreadful,’ she said. ‘Alice has chosen to fly in the face of her religion, which bids us be meek.’”
“Suffrage was just a little part of it.”
The 19th amendment was passed by Congress in 1919 and ratified on August 18, 1920. But that was only one in a series of battles Paul and the National Women’s Party were prepared to fight for equality between the sexes.
In 1923, Paul wrote the first Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) submitted to Congress. That year, an interviewer from the New York Tribune4 said to her: “I thought equal suffrage removed all sex distinctions.”
“Not at all,” she responded, adding:
Women, though enfranchised, are still in every way subordinate to men before the law, in government, in educational opportunities, in the professions, in the church, in industry and in the home. Suffrage was just a little part of it. The greatest discrimination is equality in industry. We want equal pay for equal work…[We] say, make the world safe for everybody and free women from ever being dependent on men.
The ERA wasn’t passed, but according to Paul’s 1977 obituary in Newsday5, “under her leadership, the National Woman’s Party succeeded in getting the amendment introduced in every Congress for the next 49 years until it’s final passage in 1972.”
Nearly another 50 years have gone by, and the ERA has yet to be ratified by ¾ of the state legislatures, which is required for the proposed amendment to become law.
Still, Paul’s legacy lives on. A century after the passage of the 19th amendment, the 116th U.S. Congress made history on January 3, 2019 when a record number of women were sworn into the House of Representatives – 127 total, including the first Muslim and Native American women. In this anniversary year, it’s hard not to think of Paul and her sisters in suffrage who paved the way for an extraordinary moment in history.
For further research
Read the use case, learn more and request trials via the heading links below.
*ProQuest History Vault: The Struggle for Women’s Rights, Organizational Papers 1880-1990 includes several collections of primary source documents from the National Woman’s Party, including correspondence, legal papers, meeting minutes, financial records and printed materials detailing the struggle for women’s suffrage, the Equal Rights Amendment and other initiatives to combat gender discrimination in the U.S. and around the world.
Related collections include:
- Papers of the League of Women Voters, 1918-1974
- Women’s Action Alliance
Women and Social Movements Library focuses on women’s public activism globally, from 1600 to the present. Created through a collaboration with leading historians, the collection contains nearly 400,000 pages of primary source documents and more than 200 related scholarly essays interpreting these sources.
Especially of note are the writings of Black woman suffragists who were often denied participation in the suffrage movement and continued to experience disenfranchisement in the South even after passage of the 19th amendment.
DeWolf, R. (2014). Amending Nature: The Equal Rights Amendment and Gendered Citizenship in America, 1920-1963 (Order No. 3616886).
Hill, D. E. (1999). International Law for Women's Rights: The Equality Treaties Campaign of the National Women's Party and Reactions of the United States State Department and the National League of Women Votes (1928–1938) (Order No. 9966407).
LaCoss, J. H. (2010). Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul: Woman Suffrage and Gender Bias in the American Ideal (Order No. 1483573).
Lockwood, C. (2016). The Right to Vote in Black and White: The Role of Race in the Women's Suffrage Movement in America (Order No. 10123805).
Neumann, C. E. (1994). The National Woman's Party and the Equal Rights Amendment, 1945-1977 (Order No. 1358431).
Antal, L., & Cooper, M. (2017). The Women's Suffrage Movement.
Mayhall, L. E. N. (2003). Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930.
- Walton, Mary. Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party Papers.
- Susan, S. R. (2010, Sep 12). FALL ARTS: BOOKS A soldier for women's suffrage: Alice Paul's efforts in the movement are strikingly portrayed alongside the cause's cast of characters. Los Angeles Times. Available from ProQuest Global Newsstream and ProQuest Central.
- Alice Paul Shocks Friends. (1919, Oct 26). The Atlanta Constitution (1881-1945). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Young Boswell Interviews Alice Paul. (1923, Mar 19). New - York Tribune (1923-1924). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Alice Paul, Author of the ERA. (1977, Jul 11). Newsday (1940-1990). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu