“I Was Arrested, Of Course…”

PrintPrintEmailEmailAmerican women won the right to vote in 1920 largely through the controversial efforts of a young Quaker named Alice Paul. She was born in Moorestown, New Jersey, on January 11, 1885, seven years after the woman-suffrage amendment was first introduced in Congress. Over the years the so-called Susan B. Anthony amendment had received sporadic attention from the national legislators, but from 1896 until Miss Paul’s dramatic arrival in Washington in 1912 the amendment had never been reported out of committee and was considered moribund. As the Congressional Committee chairman of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Miss Paul greeted incoming President Woodrow Wilson with a spectacular parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. Congress soon began debating the suffrage amendment again. For the next seven years—a tumultuous period of demonstrations, picketing, politicking, street violence, beatings, jailings, and hunger strikes—Miss Paul led a determined band of suffragists in the confrontation tactics she had learned from the militant British feminist Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst. This unrelenting pressure on the Wilson administration finally paid off in 1918, when an embattled President Wilson reversed his position and declared that woman suffrage was an urgently needed “war measure.”

The woman who, despite her modest disclaimers, is accorded major credit for adding the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution is a 1905 graduate of Swarthmore College. She received her master’s degree (1907) and her Ph.D. (1912) from the University of Pennsylvania. Miss Paul combined her graduate studies in 1908 and 1909 at the London School of Economics with volunteer work for the British suffrage movement. Together with another American activist, Lucy Burns, she was jailed several times in England and Scotland and returned to this country in 1910 with a reputation as an energetic and resourceful worker for women’s rights. She promptly enlisted in the American suffrage movement, and opponents and friends alike soon were—and still are—impressed by her unflinching fearlessness. “Alice Paul is tiny and her hair has turned gray,” a sympathetic feminist writer recently observed, “but she is not a sweet little gray-haired lady.”

Miss Paul’s single-minded devotion to The Cause is, of course, legendary in the women’s movement. During the early struggle in the 1920’s for the equal-rights amendment (E.R.A.) now up for ratification, she went back to college and earned three law degrees “because I thought I could be more useful to the campaign if I knew more about the law.” A similar pragmatism continues to govern Miss Paul’s daily activities. She admits to a gracious impatience with interviewers who seem, from her perspective, obsessed with the past. “Why in the world,” she politely but firmly inquires, “would anyone want to know about that?” And she pointedly delayed her conversation with AMERICAN HERITAGE until after the 1972 Presidential election so that she could spend all her time getting the candidates publicly committed to the ratification of E.R.A. President Nixon, she explained, was one of the “charter congressmen” who introduced the equal-rights amendment in 1948 and has remained a “friend” of the movement. But she voted for Senator McGovern “because in this campaign he took the stronger position on E.R.A.” 

Today, at eighty-nine, Miss Paul no longer commutes regularly from her hillside home near Ridgefield, Connecticut, to the Washington headquarters of the National Woman’s Party, which she founded in 1916. But her interest and influence in the crusade for women’s rights remain undiminished. “I think that American women are further along than any other women in the world,” she said. “But you can’t have peace in a world in which some women or some men or some nations are at different stages of development. There is so much work to be done.”

How did you first become interested in woman suffrage?

It wasn’t something I had to think about. When the Quakers were founded in England in the 1600’s, one of their principles was and is equality of the sexes. So I never had any other idea. And long before my time the Yearly Meeting in Philadelphia, which I still belong to, formed a committee to work for votes for women. The principle was always there.

Then you had your family’s encouragement in your work?

My father—he was president of the Burlington County [New Jersey] Trust Company—died when I was quite young, but he and Mother were both active in the Quaker movement. Mother was the clerk of the Friend’s Meeting in our hometown. I would say that my parents supported all the ideals that I had.

In 1912 wasn’t it a bit unusual for a woman to receive a Ph.D. degree?

Oh, no. There were no women admitted, of course, to the undergraduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, but there were a number of women graduate students.

When did you actually become involved in suffrage work?

Well, after I got my master’s in 1907, my doctoral studies took me to the School of Economics in London. The English women were struggling hard to get the vote, and everyone was urged to come in and help. So I did. That’s all there was to it. It was the same with Lucy Burns.

You met Miss Burns in London?