Last updated: January 6, 2023
Alice Paul was one of the most prominent activists of the 20th-century women's rights movement. An outspoken suffragist and feminist, she tirelessly led the charge for women's suffrage and equal rights in the United States. Born to a New Jersey Quaker family in 1885, young Alice grew up attending suffragist meetings with her mother. She pursued an unusually high level of education for a woman of her time, graduating Swarthmore College in 1905. She also received her master's in sociology in 1907, a PhD in economics in 1912 from the University of Pennsylvania, and a law degree (LLB) from the Washington College of Law at American University in 1922.
While continuing her studies in England, she made the acquaintance of militant British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia. Pankhurst’s group used disruptive and radical tactics including smashing windows and prison hunger strikes. Police arrested and imprisoned Paul many times for her involvement with the group. Forever changed by her experiences, Paul returned to the United States in 1910 and turned her attention to the American suffrage movement. After the deaths of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1902 and Susan B. Anthony in 1906, the suffrage movement was languishing, lacking focus under conservative suffrage organizations that concentrated only on achieving state suffrage. Paul believed that the movement needed to focus on the passage of a federal suffrage amendment to the US Constitution.
When she first returned to the United States, Alice Paul attempted to work with the main US suffrage organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). They appointed her chair of the NAWSA Congressional Committee in 1912. Almost immediately, she began organizing a Woman Suffrage Procession planned for Washington, DC, on March 3, 1913 -- the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. The carefully planned parade turned into a near riot when spectators began assaulting the women and the police refused to intervene. The cavalry from Fort Myer eventually restored order and the parade continued. Disagreements over the parade and fundraising lead to growing tension between Alice Paul and the NAWSA leadership.
In 1916, Paul founded the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Paul adopted the Pankhursts’ imperative to “hold the party in power responsible.” The NWP withheld its support from existing political parties until women had gained the right to vote and “punished” those parties in power who did not support suffrage. Through dramatic protests, marches, and demonstrations, the suffrage movement gained popular support.
In 1917, Alice Paul and the NWP began picketing the White House -- the first time ever anyone had protested there. When World War I started, people felt that the nonviolent protests by these “Silent Sentinels” was disloyal. The women were harassed and beaten, and were repeatedly arrested and jailed on charges of “obstructing traffic.” The women were sent to the Occoquan Workhouse (prison) in Virginia and the District Jail in DC. Prison conditions were awful. In October 1917, Alice Paul and others went on a hunger strike in protest. In response, the prison guards restrained and force-fed her through a tube. In November 1917, the superintendent of Occoquan ordered over forty guards to attack the Silent Sentinels. Battered, choked, and beaten, some to unconsciousness, the women described it as the “Night of Terror.”
Nevertheless, Paul and the NWP continue to organize protests outside the White House until 1919, when Congress voted to send the Susan B. Anthony Amendment to the states for ratification. In 1920, the required 36 states ratified the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, making it the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution. The 19th Amendment paved the way for most women to vote by removing sex as legitimate legal reason to deny a woman the right to vote.
Paul believed the vote was just the first step in the quest for full gender equality. In 1922, she reorganized the NWP with the goal of eliminating all discrimination against women. On July 20, 1923, 75 years after the first women's rights convention in 1848, Paul introduced the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), also known as the Lucretia Mott Amendment, in Seneca Falls, NY. It launched what would be a lifelong campaign to win full equality for women. In 1929, the National Woman’s Party moved into a permanent headquarters in the Sewell House on Capitol Hill. The NWP renamed the house the Alva Belmont House in honor of their primary benefactor.
Concerned not only with the rights of American women, but also with those of women around the world, Paul founded the World Woman’s Party, which served as the NWP’s international organization until 1954. In 1945, she was instrumental in incorporating language regarding women’s equality in the United Nations Charter, and in establishing a permanent UN Commission on the Status of Women. In the 1960s, she also played a role in getting sex included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Alice died in 1977 at a Quaker facility in Moorestown, New Jersey. She is remembered as a tireless, devoted pioneer in the fight for women’s rights, and her legacy is still felt by women around the world today.
 Alice Paul’s birthplace, known as Paulsdale, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 5, 1989 and designated a National Historic Landmark on December 4, 1991.
 The Occoquan Workhouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the DC Workhouse and Reformatory Historic District on February 16, 2006.
 Women’s Rights National Historical Park preserves the sites associated with the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY.
 The building that the NWP moved in to is the oldest standing building in the Capitol Hill area. Known as the Alva Belmont House and the Sewell-Belmont House, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on June 16, 1972, and designated a National Historic Landmark on May 30, 1974. It was designated the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, a unit of the National Park Service, on April 12, 2016.