Alice Paul at the National Women’s Party building: 1966
Dr. Alice Paul, longtime leader of women’s suffrage and equal rights, stands on a balcony of the National Women’s Party building at 144 Constitution Ave. NW October 12, 1966.
Paul founded the National Women’s Party in 1916 and led the fight for a constitutional amendment for women’s suffrage at a time when most women activists were concentrating on the states.
After the right to vote was achieved with the 19th Amendment in 1920, Paul turned her attention to passage of an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. Her long effort was ultimately unsuccessful, but she was one of the leaders that insisted on a prohibition against discrimination based on sex in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Paul was known for adopting ultimately successful militant tactics of the British suffrage movement, but also for attempting to exclude and marginalize women of color from the fight for women’s right to vote.
--The following is a brief biography of Alice Paul from the National Women’s History Museum:
A vocal leader of the twentieth century women’s suffrage movement, Alice Paul advocated for and helped secure passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, granting women the right to vote. Paul next authored the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, which has yet to be adopted.
Born on January 11, 1885 in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, Paul was the oldest of four children of Tacie Parry and William Paul, a wealthy Quaker businessman. Paul’s parents embraced gender equality, education for women, and working to improve society. Paul’s mother, a suffragist, brought her daughter with her to women’s suffrage meetings.
Paul attended Swarthmore College, a Quaker school cofounded by her grandfather, graduating with a biology degree in 1905. She attended the New York School of Philanthropy (now Columbia University) and received a Master of Arts degree in sociology in 1907. She then went to England to study social work, and after returning, earned a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1910.
While in England, Paul met American Lucy Burns, and joining the women’s suffrage efforts there, they learned militant protest tactics, including picketing and hunger strikes. Back in the United States, in 1912, Paul and Burns joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), with Paul leading the Washington, DC chapter. NAWSA primarily focused on state-by-state campaigns; Paul preferred to lobby Congress for a constitutional amendment. Such differences led Paul and others to split with NAWSA and form the National Woman's Party.
Borrowing from her British counterparts, Paul organized parades and pickets in support of suffrage. Her first—and the largest—was in Washington, DC, on March 3, 1913, the day before President-elect Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Approximately eight thousand women marched with banners and floats down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House, while a half million spectators watched, supported and harassed the marchers. On March 17, Paul and other suffragists met with Wilson, who said it was not yet time for an amendment to the Constitution. On April 7, Paul organized a demonstration and founded the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage to focus specifically on lobbying Congress.
In January 1917, Paul and over 1,000 “Silent Sentinels” began eighteen months of picketing the White House, standing at the gates with such signs as, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” They endured verbal and physical attacks from spectators, which increased after the US entered World War I. Instead of protecting the women’s right to free speech and peaceful assembly, the police arrested them on the flimsy charge of obstructing traffic.
Paul was sentenced to jail for seven months, where she organized a hunger strike in protest. Doctors threatened to send Paul to an insane asylum and force-fed her, while newspaper accounts of her treatment garnered public sympathy and support for suffrage. By 1918, Wilson announced his support for suffrage. It took two more years for the Senate, House, and the required 36 states to approve the amendment.
Afterward, Paul and the National Women’s Party focused on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to guarantee women constitutional protection from discrimination. Paul spent her life advocating for this and other women’s issues. The ERA was ratified by 35 states in the 1970s, but by the 1982 deadline was three states short of 38 needed to become a constitutional amendment.
---The following is a brief account of the history of relations between black women activists and the suffrage movement by Martha S. Jones that appeared in the Guardian:
The US suffragette movement tried to leave out Black women. They showed up anyway
Racism and sexism were bound together in the fight to vote – and Black women made it clear they would never cede the question of their voting rights to others
In late winter 1913, suffragette Alice Paul and her committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) were at work planning a women’s parade that aimed to upstage Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration with a many-thousand-strong phalanx of women protesting for the right to vote.
Paul was poised to pull off an unparalleled act of political theater on the nation’s biggest stage, Washington DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue. Her vision was clouded, however, as Paul contemplated what it would mean to have Black women among the marchers.
By 1913, racism was tightly stitched into the fabric of the movement for women’s votes. As far back as the 1860s, suffrage leaders had traded in anti-Black thinking. They had even linked arms with openly racist allies who, for example, in 1867 Kansas looked to trade the defeat of Black enfranchisement for the elevation of white women to the polls. The movement continued into the 20th century by way of a southern strategy that aimed to win support for a women’s suffrage amendment by remaining hands-off when it came to Jim Crow, assenting to the ongoing disenfranchisement of Black women in the south. Paul built her radical wing of the movement on this troubled foundation.
Initially, Paul had reached out to invite Black women in Washington DC – especially the members of Howard University’s Delta Sigma Theta sorority – to take part in the parade.
Facing criticism and the threat that white southern women might pull out, Paul recalculated, and drew a line: the parade was to be “a purely suffrage demonstration entirely uncomplicated by any other problems such as racial ones”. Paul imagined she knew best: “Our winning suffrage will be the thing that will most raise the state of Negro women.”
Had she asked, Black suffragists would have advised Paul that there was nowhere for her committee to hide. Racism and sexism were bound together in the fight for women’s votes. When it came to suffrage politics, there was nothing pure about them.
On the morning of 3 March 1913, Black women rose early and joined the throng that assembled for the parade. Ida B Wells, the Chicago-based anti-lynching and women’s suffrage activist, was at the center of a true dust-up when on the eve of the parade she was advised to march with other Black women rather than with her Illinois state delegation.
It was a painful rebuke, but Wells refused defeat and ultimately marched with her state’s representatives, flanked by white women allied with Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club.
Mary Church Terrell was a former head of the National Association of Colored Women and a Washington DC powerbroker who traveled home from New York to march. Terrell had always kept one foot in suffrage association politics and knew its shortcomings well. Neither Wells nor Terrell frequented Paul’s circles but they appeared on that day to make plain that Black women would never cede the question of their voting rights to others.
Wells and Terrell were not alone. Most of the two dozen or so Black women marchers were local residents of Washington, including the sculptor May Howard Jackson; the director of the Washington Conservatory of Music, Harriet Gibbs Marshall; pharmacists and drugstore owners Dr Amanda Gray and Dr Eva Ross; and a contingent of so-called college women that included Oberlin College graduate and advocate for early childhood education Anna Evans Murray, M Street school French instructor Georgia Simpson and Smith College graduate Harriet Shadd. Howard University students joined the procession decked out in caps and gowns.
What had been Black women’s experience of the parade? Carrie Clifford, the poet and activist, boasted to readers of the NAACP’s magazine, the Crisis, that Black women should be “congratulated” for “taking part” and demonstrating the “courage of their convictions”. They had not been encouraged to participate but once there they received “courteous treatment on the part of the marshals” and “no worse treatment from bystanders than was accorded white women”.
In the same issue, editor WEB DuBois detailed the strife that had surrounded Black women’s attempts to join the parade as equals and, like Clifford, he concluded that ultimately they had marched “according to their state and occupation without let or hindrance”.
Editors at the Chicago Defender were not so understanding and insisted that Paul and her committee owed Black women marchers a “public apology” for “drawing the color line”.
Perhaps the best measure of how the 1913 parade mattered was what Black women did next. In the months that followed, they did not look to collaborate with Paul’s NAWSA. Nor did they pursue their grievances. Instead, Black women returned to their ongoing work, commingling their commitment to the vote with concerns about racial justice.
Carrie Clifford not only wrote for the Crisis, she raised funds to support the magazine, chairing a benefit along with suffragists Addie Hunton and Terrell. Terrell returned to the lecture circuit in Brooklyn, where she urged audiences to support anti-lynching legislation. Wells headed home to Chicago, where she continued to build the influence of the Alpha Suffrage Club.
They were busy that spring, women’s suffrage was on the agenda in Illinois’s capital. But so was a cluster of Jim Crow laws that proposed to segregate transportation, demote Black train workers, and bar interracial marriage. Whatever disappointments Black women felt after the March 1913 parade, they quickly receded. There was too much work to do.
For more information and related images, see flic.kr/s/aHskEy9PNt
Photo by Schmick. The image is courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.