I am able to vote today because Alice Paul and her contemporaries determinedly campaigned for women’s suffrage a hundred years ago.
Alice Paul was born in 1885 to Quaker parents who instilled in her the notion of gender equality and the need to work for the betterment of society. As a child growing up in the New Jersey countryside she often accompanied her mother to meetings of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, thus learning at an early age about the importance of women having the right to vote.
After high school, Alice studied at Swarthmore College graduating in 1905 with a degree in Biology. Post graduation she was active for a while in the Settlement Movement in New York City promoting social equality, and then she left to study social work at the Woodbrooke Settlement for Social Work in Birmingham, England. Her stay in England exposed her to the suffragette movement in Britain, and it was there that she learned the power of collective action and protest.
By the time she returned stateside, the suffragette movement in 1913 Washington DC was being supported by many women, but the movement made a giant leap through the theatrically staged parade orchestrated by Alice Paul and her contemporaries. The parade was strategically planned to coincide with the date of Woodrow Wilson’s Presidential Inauguration. The parade involved thousands of women, including the founding members of the African-American sorority Delta Sigma Theta from nearby Howard University. On March 3, 1913 as Wilson entered Washington DC, some 250,000 people were lined up along the city’s main route; but not to see Wilson, they were there to see the suffragettes. Floats, bands, mounted brigades and approximately 6,000 women marching down Pennsylvania Avenue commanded the city’s attention. The parade made front page news everywhere, illustrating that American women were not going to back down on the issue of getting the vote.
When Wilson was re-elected, Alice organized the 1917 picketing of the White House, which led to the arrest of the female demonstrators. Their crime consisted of marching in front of the White House carrying placards asking “When Will Women Have Liberty?” Sentences ranged from six days to six months’ incarceration in the Occoquan Workhouse in Occoquan, Virginia. Alice and the other women were treated as prisoners, force fed when they attempted a hunger strike, robbed of their street clothes and given filthy prison garb, and thrown in rat infested cells as justification for their actions of supposedly obstructing traffic.
While the women languished in the workhouse, underfed and overworked, sometimes even being beaten, the world outside Occoquan preoccupied itself with World War I. It wasn’t until news of their prison conditions were leaked to the public, that citizens began to demand the women’s release. Upon leaving, it was noted that many of the prisoners had to be taken to local hospitals because of their deteriorated conditions.
Alice walked out of the prison on her own, and immediately took up the cause once more for a suffrage amendment.
Two years later, both the Senate and the House passed the 19th Amendment, and the battle for state ratification began in earnest. In order to ratify the amendment, three-fourths of the states needed to vote for it. Alice campaigned tirelessly, speaking in public every chance she got.
By the summer of 1920, only one more state needed to approve the amendment. When Tennessee voted in favor, the 19th Amendment became a reality. On August 26, 1920 American women won the right to vote. Alice had herself photographed toasting the victory.
But she did not stop her efforts in procuring equality for all. She worked to have the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) ratified so there would be absolute equality for all men and women in America. The Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in Congress every year from 1923 until it finally passed in 1972. Alice died five years later at the age of 92 having seen the seeds of her labor bear fruit.
I can vote because Alice Paul helped to earn that privilege for every American woman.
For additional information on this strong woman, visit www.alicepaul.org.