The banner on the homepage of the Alice Paul Institute website says it all: “You have a voice. Thank Alice.” As a national leader of the effort to gain women’s suffrage with an amendment to the United States Constitution, and as founder of the National Women’s Party, Alice Paul dedicated her life’s work to one issue: equality for women. Even after passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Paul continued her relentless advocacy for women’s rights. A Connecticut resident during some of the last years of her life, Paul fought valiantly for women’s suffrage and her vision of full equality under the law.
Alice Stokes was born in Mount Laurel Township, N.J., to an affluent Quaker family. She was educated at Swarthmore College and later earned graduate degrees in sociology and economics at the University of Pennsylvania. While doing graduate work in England, Paul was exposed to the Pankhurst sisters, militant British suffragists who were employing dramatic and controversial tactics, including hunger strikes and rock throwing, to raise public awareness and win the right to vote. Paul herself was arrested seven times, jailed three times and force-fed in prison when she refused to eat.
Paul introduced these tactics to the American suffrage movement upon her return to the United States. Initially, Paul joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and re-located to Washington. D.C. to organize the Congressional Committee whose goal was a federal amendment. The home she inhabited in Washington is now the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum and is dedicated to the celebration of women’s quest for equal rights. Ultimately, Paul and other suffragists, including Lucy Burns and Connecticut’s own Elsie Hill, broke away from NAWSA, whose leaders advocated a more conciliatory, state-by-state approach. Forming the National Women’s Party (NWP) in 1917, Paul and her colleagues took to the streets to demand suffrage, and during World War I, picketed the White House against a government that promised to make the world safe for democracy while denying half of its citizens the right to vote.
The picketers became known as “silent sentinels,” wearing white dresses and carrying signs that said “Kaiser Wilson” and “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” They were accused of a lack of patriotism during wartime, attacked by angry mobs and ultimately arrested and sent to jail. During her incarceration, Paul went on a hunger strike and prison officials force-fed her, leading to sympathetic press coverage that put pressure on President Wilson. Finally, in 1919, the amendment won passage in Congress. The following year, Tennessee ratified the amendment, becoming the last vote needed for the 19th Amendment to be added to the Constitution, and women were granted the right to vote. That “was the most useful thing I ever did,” Paul said shortly before her death.
But the vote was not enough to guarantee women's equal rights, in Paul's opinion. By 1921, she had decided to concentrate her efforts on a constitutional amendment that would guarantee women equal rights, and she never swerved from the course she set for herself and her group. First introduced in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment finally passed Congress in 1972, although it failed to win ratification. Paul worked tirelessly for the amendment until her death in 1977. Her work exemplified the active commitment of many Connecticut women to improving their world and the condition of women's lives.
The Alice Paul Institute was founded in 1984 and exists to honor Paul’s legacy and preserve her childhood home in Paulsdale, N.J., as it continues to work for women’s equality and encourage the future leaders of America. The annual Alice Paul Awards honor individuals who capture the spirit of Alice Paul. The award-winning 2004 HBO film, Iron-Jawed Angels, dramatized the story of Paul and her colleagues. Paul was also inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2010, ironically in the same class of Inductees as President Woodrow Wilson whom she had fought so fiercely.
During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War
Industrial growth, economic expansion, and plenty of consumer goods gave women more purchasing power and pleasure in the 1920s. Women gained political office, but after achieving the right to vote the Women’s Movement fractured over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The percentage of married women in the workforce doubled, though in menial jobs, while women of color had few opportunities. The media’s message about the home was ambivalent. For daughters, the young flapper was glamorized in movies starring Clara Bow who had It (sex appeal). But the modern mother, equipped with widely-advertised appliances, was expected to keep house and raise children with new efficiency.
The prosperity of the twenties contrasted with the hardships of the 1930s following the 1929 stock market crash. Farm families in the Dust Bowl, suffering from drought and crop failures, fled to California where they worked as migratory laborers. As impoverished families across America struggled, desertion rose (but not divorce, which was expensive), and family size grew smaller. Women’s jobs were largely confined to low-paying domestic labor, garment factories, and food-processing plants, all further segregated by race and ethnicity.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, helped by wife Eleanor, brought strong leadership toward recovery with the New Deal. Professional women were included in federal projects, and work relief programs gave help to poor women. The Social Security Act of 1935 owed much to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. African-American Mary McLeod Bethune, using her executive position in the National Youth Administration, pressured the administration to provide equal pay for blacks in all programs.
World War II deeply influenced women’s lives. Sex-segregated labor diminished, as symbolized in the poster of “Rosie the Riveter.” Women were accepted into the military, though the public was concerned about the loss of femininity. Defense industries were reluctant to admit women, but as men were drafted, the resistance eroded. Older, married women provided the largest number of new workers. Black, Mexican, and Chinese women had new opportunities, but Japanese women suffered internment in camps. With demobilization, women were laid off, but many were soon back on the job. Their role still was defined in the home, but the war had increased women’s activities in the workplace.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.