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alice paul
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Happy Birthday, Alice Paul, Suffragist Leader

January 11, 2010
by Lindsey Chapman
For most of her life, Alice Paul fought to obtain equal rights for women. She was a suffragist, a feminist and a political strategist. Committed to gender equality, she was one of the driving forces behind the Women’s Rights Movement, helping author the Equal Rights Amendment.

Early Days

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Alice Paul was born to Hicksite Quaker parents on Jan. 11, 1885, in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. Her father, William, was a successful businessman who operated a gentleman’s farm. His financial successes aside, Alice and her siblings lived a simple life and were required to help at the “home farm,” as she called it.

Hicksite Quakers believed in gender equality. Alice’s early childhood experiences working on the farm—and the teachings of her mother, who helped introduce her to the suffragist movement—became an integral part of the work ethic she applied to her pursuit of women’s rights later in life.

At her mother’s urging, Alice attended school at Swarthmore College, an institution her grandfather helped found on the principle that men and women deserved an equal education. She ultimately earned a doctorate in social work from the University of Pennsylvania.

Notable Accomplishments

Paul also studied in London. During her time there, she joined radical suffragist movements and was arrested several times. She returned to the United States determined to give more force to American women’s push for equality. While fellow suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were campaigning in individual states, Paul decided to lobby Congress for what she wanted.

By orchestrating an 8,000-women strong march up Pennsylvania Avenue the day before Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated, Paul forced the suffrage movement onto the public stage. The suffragist’s efforts weren’t well received, with bystanders mocking the marchers and attempting to block their path.

A month after leading the march up Pennsylvania Avenue, Paul co-founded the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. The group was different than those led by older suffragists. Younger members were more willing to take extreme action to get the equality they desired.

For Paul, life did go to extremes. But World War I, a forced stay in a psychopathic ward, harsh force-feeding during a hunger strike and even more jail time couldn’t dampen her efforts. The Congressional Union merged with the National Woman’s Party, and Paul became its “guiding light.” The group relied on militant activity, heckling and public embarrassment to support a constitutional amendment allowing women to vote. In 1920, women won the right to vote after Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment.

The Rest of the Story

Once women could vote, Paul decided to attend law school. She later began championing an Equal Rights Amendment, which she helped author. It would be 50 years, however, before the Equal Rights Amendment would pass Congress.

Paul died on July 9, 1977, having never seen the end result of the Equal Rights Amendment. Four thousand people helped commemorate her life on Aug. 26, 1977, by marching up Pennsylvania Avenue. Her life has been documented in an HBO movie, “Iron Jawed Angels.”

In May 2008, the United States House of Representatives passed legislation to award Paul the Congressional Gold Medal. Of the honor, the National Organization for Women (NOW) wrote, “It was because of women like Alice Paul, who dedicated her life to the women’s movement, that organizations like NOW have been able to be legitimate and pertinent forces in politics and in our culture today.”
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