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Reading 1: Alice Paul and the Struggle for Women's Suffrage
Women gained the right to vote in 1920 when the states ratified the 19th Amendment. Before that, only women in western states could vote in public elections. The struggle for suffrage (the right to vote) was a long battle. For 70 years, many men and women had worked to change the laws that stopped women voting. One of those women was Alice Paul, a civil rights activist from New Jersey. She founded the National Woman's Party and organized big, public spectacles in Washington, DC, to win national support for a Constitutional amendment to give women voting rights.
Alice Paul learned how to get people's attention from English activists. Before Paul worked for women's rights in the United States, she worked for them in England. She moved to England in 1907 and became involved that country's women's suffrage movement. She participated in parades, street meetings, and protests that led to her arrest and imprisonment. When she was in jail, Paul took part in hunger strikes and was force-fed. Along with other women, Paul was held down and forced to take in food through a tube. When she returned to the United States in 1910, Paul joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and three years later she went to Washington, DC, as the chairman of the association's Congressional Union.
The Congressional Union was not a priority for the NAWSA when Paul arrived in Washington. The association did not want to use its money and volunteers to support a Constitutional amendment. It focused its efforts on changing state laws, not federal ones. However, Paul made an amendment her goal and found supporters. She and her ally Lucy Burns rented a basement apartment near the White House to be their headquarters. From there the two women began a campaign to secure a women's suffrage.
Paul believed publicity would help her cause. She wanted newspaper coverage to keep suffrage on the minds of Americans across the country. After a few months in Washington, Paul and a small group of activists organized a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House. She planned this parade for the day before President Woodrow Wilson's 1913 inauguration. Over 5,000 women came from all over the United States and from other countries to participate. Male spectators harassed the women. They yelled and then physically attacked them. The police did nothing. The spectacle and the violence made woman's suffrage front-page news across the country.
Alice Paul's protests and her focus on getting a suffrage amendment passed did not go over well with the NAWSA leaders. On top of that, the NAWSA did not side with or single out a political party while Paul loudly criticized whichever party had the most power. Paul and the NAWSA leaders supported a suffrage amendment, but they believed in different tactics. Paul's group left the NAWSA after several years in Washington because of these differences. She and her allies in Washington renamed their group the “National Woman's Party” by 1916 and continued their work. They lost the benefits of being connected to the NAWSA, but by then they had the financial and social support of Alva Belmont.
Belmont was a very wealthy and famous American socialite from New York. She was also a feminist who worked for political rights for women in the United States and in Europe. She met Paul in 1913 and was impressed by her bold activism. Like Paul, Belmont was not happy with the NAWSA's slow progress. Belmont supported the Congressional Committee. She stayed with the group after it became the National Woman's Party. She did not participate in the protests, but her large donations and connections were important for the women's movement. With Belmont's support, the NWP kept its fashionable headquarters near the White House.1
Paul's organization lobbied Congress and put pressure on President Wilson. They also used more public forms of action, including parades, pageants, street speaking, and demonstrations. In early 1917, the president was not persuaded, so the NWP adopted tactics that were more aggressive and more confrontational. They picketed the White House from Lafayette Square. They also burned Wilson's speeches in public fires.This is a common tactic for activists today, but they were the first group to do this in American history. The picket lines continued for months, rain or shine.
During World War I, some Americans thought Alice Paul and her White House picketing was unpatriotic. Women on the picket line were attacked by bystanders and sometimes by soldiers. Police were there, but they either did nothing or they arrested the protestors. Alice Paul was arrested in October 1917 and sentenced to seven months in prison. For the second time in her life, she went on a hunger strike and again the prison officials responded with forced feeding. Women of the NWP demanded to be considered political prisoners rather than criminals. Of the thousands of women who served on the picket line organized by Paul, about 500 were arrested, and 168 served prison sentences.2 Paulís methods worked and newspapers reported on the arrests. The public was shocked to hear about the hunger strikes and violent, forced-feedings in jail. News coverage increased public support for an amendment.
The campaigns of the National Woman's Party eventually forced Wilson to support a federal amendment that would give women the right to vote.3 On June 4, 1919, the Senate passed the Susan B. Anthony Amendment for equal suffrage. It had already been passed a number of times by the House of Representatives. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified by the necessary three-quarters of the states and became law shortly before the election of 1920. This was 42 years after it was submitted to Congress for the first time. The Amendment states:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Alice Paul is a well-known person in American history, but she was not the only person who worked for woman's suffrage and historians sometimes disagree about how important she was to the movement. Some argue that she inspired “profound and unquestioning loyalty” in her followers and caused extreme distrust by her detractors.4 Ex-Congressional Union member Charlotte Whitney called it an “autocratic organization with its controls entirely in the hands of one woman” and many people thought that description applied to the National Woman's Party, as well.5 However, according to historian William F. O'Neill, “Other leaders were widely admired, even loved, but Miss Paul was the only one whose example led women of all ages and stations to risk jail and worse."6
Questions for Reading 1
1) Who was Alice Paul? How did she contribute to American democracy?
2) How did Alice Paul and the other female activists get the public to care about their struggle for voting rights? Do you know of any other famous activists, in the US or another country, who went to extremes to draw attention to injustice? Do you think their suffering was worth their success?
3) Who was Alva Belmont? How did she help the women's movement? Do you think she is as important as Alice Paul? Why or why not?
4) How do multiple perspectives, like the ones in the last paragraph, help us think about the complexity of important historical figures? What evidence is there in the reading that Alice Paul was controlling? What evidence is there that she was charismatic and loved?
Reading 1 is adapted from the “Alva Belmont House (Washington, DC)” National Historic Landmark nomination, written by Carol Ann Poh, from biographical material on Alice Paul developed by the Sewall-Belmont house, and from the website “Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman's Party,” created by the American Memory Program at the Library of Congress.
For a lesson plan devoted specifically to the National Woman's Party fight for passage of the 19th Amendment, see the TwHP lesson, Lafayette Park: First Amendment Rights on the President's Doorstep.
1 Hoffert, Sylvia, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont: Unlikely Champion of Women's Rights (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University, 2012), 89-106.