|Alice Paul raising a glass to suffrage in 1920.|
Born this day in 1885: Alice Paul (1885–1977), militant suffragist and fierce proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment
What Carrie Chapman Catt did for the moderate wing of the women’s movement, Alice Paul did for its militant wing. Paul learned militant tactics from British suffragists like Emmeline Pankhurst while overseas from 1907 to 1910. These tactics included the civil disobedience that resulted in three arrests during that time. Paul took this training back home with her in 1910. She joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), but grew impatient with what she saw as their timid approach. When she became chair of its languishing Congressional Committee in 1912, she began organizing activities that would draw much-needed public attention to the cause. The first such activity was a large-scale suffrage parade on March 3, 1913, that upstaged president-elect Woodrow Wilson’s arrival in Washington D.C. the day before his inauguration. The spectacle included 26 floats, ten bands, five squadrons of cavalry, six chariots, and around 8,000 women marchers. Half a million people attended the parade. The crowd eventually got out of hand, and groups of angry men attacked the women while the police stood by with their arms folded.
|Front page of the suffrage paper Woman's Journal covering the March 3, 1913 march.|
Before long Paul and NAWSA parted ways. She joined up with the Women’s Party, taking the Congressional Committee with her, and it eventually evolved into the National Women’s Party. Paul continued agitating with marches, pickets, and acts of civil disobedience—including be one of a group of women who regularly chained themselves to iron fencing outside the White House. One major accomplishment of the National Women’s Party was to keep focus on suffrage even though World War was raging. In fact, Paul criticized the U.S. for “keeping the world safe for democracy” abroad while it wasn’t exactly promoting it at home. Wilson in particular came under fierce attack until he converted to the cause.
Paul threw herself body and soul into her activism. She was arrested several times, as she was overseas, and singled out for excessively long sentences and endured abuse while in prison. In October of 1917 she was arrested for picketing and kept in solitary confinement (she was not even allowed letters). Demanding to be treated like a political prisoner, she went on a hunger strike (not her first) for three weeks and was brutally force-fed through her nose. Public outcry led to her early release.
After passage of the 19th Amendment, she introduced the Equal Rights Amendment (1923), which she dubbed the Lucretia Mott Amendment. The original wording of the amendment was
Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.
It was later updated to read
Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.
The remainder of her long life Paul dedicated to the passage of the ERA. She armed herself with several law degrees (in addition to the pile of various undergraduate and graduate degrees she already had) so that she could argue for its passage with strong legal arguments. The ERA was introduced to Congress annually for 50—count ’em, 50!—years before it was finally passed in 1972. The amendment failed to garner the required number of votes for ratification before the 1982 deadline.* Paul was also responsible for the inclusion of sex in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems are complicated. But to me there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.”
Alice Paul was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1979.
Read more about the Equal Rights Amendment, including ongoing efforts at ratification, here.
*The ERA required ratification by 38 states, but was ratified by only 35. Blame Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia.