Alice Paul’s Crusade: How A Young Quaker from New Jersey Changed the National Conversation and Got the Vote
On March 2, 1918, a news item appeared on the front page of the Alaskan newspaper The Seward Gateway. Under the headline, “Alice Paul Has Measles,” was a report that the “militant suffrage leader” was confined to her room but carrying on her campaign through the door’s keyhole. Paul was largely unknown five years earlier when she arrived in Washington to work for an amendment to the Constitution prohibiting voter discrimination based on sex. That a paper in a remote U.S. territory would now find her measles newsworthy, albeit embellished with a keyhole, suggested how she had captured the attention of the nation.
Seldom out of the news, Paul had orchestrated the first organized social protest parade in the nation’s capital. She and her followers were the first ever to picket the White House. They also staged auto parades, rallies, petition drives, and news-making publicity stunts. And that was the point of it all: to keep suffrage constantly in front of the public, even to the nation’s farthest frozen frontiers. Between 1913 and 1918, she had proved to be a master tactician, a pioneer in non-violent resistance, a talented fundraiser, a charismatic organizer and a public relations genius.
Born January 11, 1885, in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, the oldest of four, Paul was the daughter of strict Quakers, raised in a home where music was forbidden. She attended Quaker schools before enrolling in Swarthmore College, founded by her grandfather and other Quakers, on the outskirts of Philadelphia. It remains a mystery how such a sheltered young woman could burst so suddenly into the wider world, driven by a fierce craving to transform society.
After college graduation in 1905, Paul flirted with a career in social work, studying for a year in New York while living and working in a settlement house on the Lower East Side. It was not for her. Social workers, she said, “were not doing much good in the world. . .. You couldn’t change the situation by social work.” In 1909, during studies abroad, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the militant wing of the British suffrage movement. It became her training ground.
Her first assignment was selling the WSPU newspaper in the streets of London. Shy by nature, Paul forced herself to hawk papers, standing in the refuse-strewn gutters to which prostitutes and “newsies” were relegated. Though fearful of public speaking, she did it nevertheless, so impressing the leadership that she was recruited for demonstrations. She was arrested seven times and jailed thrice. Male political prisoners were allowed to send and receive mail, read newspapers, have visitors. Denied similar treatment, WSPU offenders went on hunger strikes. Authorities responded with forced feedings. The women were held down, and eggs and milk funneled through a tube to their nostrils. “I never went through it without the tears streaming down my face,” Paul wrote her mother.
In 1910, Paul returned to the States determined to become an academic. Before leaving for Europe, she had earned her master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania. Now she would complete her doctorate in economics. Still, suffrage called. In 1911, she led Philadelphia’s first street-corner campaign for the right to vote. Night after night for two months, speaking from a horse-drawn cart, Paul and other suffragists made their case to crowds that sometimes numbered in the hundreds. At her side was Lucy Burns, a fiery Scotch-Irish Catholic from Brooklyn, whom she had met in a London police station. But the pair quickly became disenchanted with the state-by-state approach taken by the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1912, after more than 60 years of this approach, women could vote in just nine states, all in the thinly populated West.
Paul and Burns offered to take over the National Women’s Suffrage Association’s moribund Congressional Committee in Washington, DC, which was tasked with promoting a constitutional amendment. Paul topped her action list with a plan for a parade, a spectacle of a sort never seen in Washington. On March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration, a procession of some 8,000 mostly female marchers, wearing white or clad in colorful caps and capes, interspersed with mounted brigades and decorated floats, unspooled on Pennsylvania Avenue. The first float proclaimed: “We demand an amendment to the Constitution of the United States enfranchising the women of the country.” “Demand” was an incendiary word, something nice women didn’t do. They were putting an unsympathetic Wilson on notice that they expected action.
No sooner was Paul’s parade underway than thousands of onlookers spilled into its path, blocking its progress. Men spit at the marchers, threw lighted cigarettes and hurled insults, while police stood calmly by. To the surprise of many, Paul was pleased by this chaos. The parade made news coast to coast.
In the ensuing months, Paul was ejected from the National American Woman Suffrage Association by a leadership troubled by both her boldness and her refusal to turn over the funds she raised. With Lucy Burns she founded her own organization, the National Woman’s Party. In England, the radical suffragettes were burning cherished landmarks and committing other acts of violence. Paul established her own brand of protest, which combined provocative demonstrations, innovations in lobbying and public relations, and strict non-violence even in the face of extreme hostility. She never lost sight of her target, the first Democratic president from the South since 1848, whose support could be the key to swaying a powerful block of anti-suffrage southerners in Congress. In 1916 Paul sent young volunteers out west to work against Wilson’s reelection in states where women could vote. But nothing budged the President.
By 1917, with little progress to show, a fresh approach gained traction. On January 10, 1917, Paul led twelve women to the White House gates, bearing huge banners that challenged Wilson: “Mr. President, How long must women wait for liberty?” Another asked: “Mr. President, What will you do for woman suffrage?” The women called themselves “Silent Sentinels,” because they did not speak a word. The New York Times labeled them, “Silent, silly and offensive.” Day after day, the women reported for duty, through rain and snow.
By spring, the United States could no longer resist the turmoil engulfing Europe. Wilson unwittingly gave the pickets new ammunition with his April, 1917, speech to Congress seeking a declaration of war: “We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts -- for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments.”
Paul’s demonstrators immediately seized on Wilson’s words. New banners asked how America could claim to be a democracy when 20 million women couldn’t vote. The President was scorned as “Kaiser Wilson.” The scene at the White House gates turned ugly. Counter-protesters, fired by patriotic zeal, called the women traitors. They seized their banners and shredded them, sometimes injuring the women in the process.
The pickets were arrested and spent days, then weeks in jail, on trumped-up charges of obstructing traffic. Paul drew a sentence of seven months. Denied status as a political prisoner, she began a hunger strike. Others followed suit, prompting authorities to begin force-feeding.
On November 14, 1917, thirty-one pickets were dispatched to a Virginia workhouse, hurled into cold cells plagued with rats and flies, forced into hard labor, and fed a starvation diet. Eventually, news of their mistreatment leaked to the papers. Pressure mounted on Wilson. When New York voters approved suffrage that month, members of Congress saw the handwriting on the wall. They, too, called on the president to drop his opposition. But Wilson’s final acquiescence did not bring the Senate around. Paul blamed the president for his failure to persuade his fellow Democrats. The future held more protests and more punishment.
Paul’s followers mounted the statue of the Marquis de Lafayette, a Revolutionary War leader, in Lafayette Park and torched papers inscribed with Wilson’s fine words about democracy. They were convicted of “climbing a statue” and housed in a derelict jail with air and water so foul it made them sick. Taking charge, the city commissioner, a Wilson appointee, devised a novel torture for hunger strikers: The tangy odor of grilled ham prepared on two strategically located gas stoves, which he called “the greatest stimulus to appetite known to man.”
Time ran out on the 65th Congress. When the 66th assembled in early 1919, the Nineteenth Amendment passed both houses. Suffragists rejoiced. But Paul was apprehensive. If women were to vote in the 1920 election, they had just 14 months to convince 36 legislatures, representing three-quarters of the states, to ratify the amendment.
Some states approved it quickly. In others, governors refused to call a special session. The South was united in opposition. By June 1920, however, 35 states had ratified. Suffragists thought that Delaware would surely be the 36th. But no. “Suffrage Dead at Dover,” intoned the New York Times.
The battle over the amendment shifted to Tennessee. Paul sent nine organizers but stayed in Washington, raising money for their support. So she didn’t get to see Harry Burn, the legislature’s youngest member, cast the deciding vote. (In his pocket was a note from his mother. “Hurrah and vote for suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt.”) Soon after that, Paul’s mother, Tacie, penned a brief entry in her scrapbook. “During the summer Suffrage was granted to women . . .. Alice at last saw her dream realized.”
Paul would not be satisfied with less than full equality for women. To that end, she wrote the Equal Rights Amendment and campaigned for it all her long life. She lived to see it pass Congress, but died on July 9, 1977. It would fail ratification by three states.
“She had the secret of all great leaders,” said one of Paul’s supporters, Hazel Hunkins-Hallinan, at her memorial service. “Within her spirit was a flame forcing her to make right what she thought to be wrong to her sex, and she communicated this in full strength to others. After a talk with Alice Paul about what had to be done, one left her presence twice one’s size and ready to do anything for a cause she made you feel so deeply.”
Mary Walton is the author of A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot. She has written four previous works of nonfiction. For twenty-two years, until 1994, she was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she wrote scores of articles as a staff writer for the Sunday Inquirer magazine. She has also written for the New York Times, Washingtonian, the Washington Monthly, the American Journalism Review, and PBS. After graduation from Harvard University, and a turn at social work and community organizing, Walton began her journalism career as a reporter at the Charleston [WV] Gazette. She lives in Philadelphia, PA, with her husband Charles Layton. She was interviewed for a two-part PBS documentary titled "The Vote" that aired in July.
“1913 Suffrage Parade.” Photo. Historic National Woman’s Party. Sewall-Belmont House and Museum. Washington, DC.
“Alice Paul to Tacie Paul,” 27 December 1909, Alice Paul Papers, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Brownlow, Louis. A Passion for Anonymity. vol. 2. University of Chicago Press, 1958.
“Febb Burn to Harry T. Burn.” August 1920. Knox County Public Library, Calvin M. MClung Digital Collection.
Irwin, Inez Haynes. Up Hill with Banners Flying. Penobscot, ME: Traversity Press, 1964.
National Women’s Party Papers, The Suffrage Years 1913-1920. Sanford, NC: Microfilming Corporation of America, 1981.
New York Times, 11 January 1917.
“President Wilson’s War Message.” 2 April 1917. Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Princeton University Press.
Stevens, Doris. Jailed for Freedom. New York: Schocken Books, 1975, reprint of 1920 edition.
Suffragists Oral History Project, Oral History Collection at the Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.
Walton, Mary. A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010, 2016.
 Suffragists Oral History Project, Oral History Collection at the Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.
 “Alice Paul to Tacie Paul, 27 December 1909,” Alice Paul Papers, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
 “1913 Suffrage Parade,” Photo, Historic National Woman’s Party, Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, Washington DC.
 Inez Haynes Irwin, Up Hill with Banners Flying, (Penobscot, ME: Traversity Press, 1964).
 Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom, (New York: Schocken Books, 1975, reprint of 1920 edition).
 New York Times, 11 January 1917.
 “President Wilson’s War Message,” 2 April 1917, Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Princeton University Press.
 Louis Brownlow, A Passion for Anonymity, vol. 2 (University of Chicago Press, 1958).
 “Suffrage Dead at Dover,” New York Times, May 29, 1920, p. 12, https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/20667038/
 “Febb Burn to Harry T. Burn,” August 1920, Knox County Public Library, Calvin M. MClung Digital Collection.
 “Tacie Paul’s Scrapbook,” Alice Paul Papers, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
 Mary Walton, A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010, 2016, p. 252.