Alice Paul was born to wealthy Quaker parents who believed in gender equality, education for girls and women, and working to better society. As a young girl she accompanied her mother to woman suffrage meetings in their hometown of Mount Laurel, New Jersey.
After earning a master’s in sociology, Paul studied social work in England, where she also joined the woman suffrage movement and learned the militant tactics she would later employ back home.
Returning to the United States, Paul earned a Ph.D. in social work, joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and became the head of the D.C. chapter. But she soon split from the group, impatient with NAWSA’s strategy of lobbying state legislatures. Persuading Congress to amend the Constitution made more sense to Paul, so she and others formed the National Woman’s Party and started organizing demonstrations, an unusual tactic at the time. The first one took place March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s first presidential inauguration. Thousands of women came to Washington to demand the vote, marching from the U.S. Capitol along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. The parade drew about half a million spectators, not all of them friendly. Some men jeered loudly, threw objects at the marchers, and even attacked them.
President Wilson opposed woman suffrage, and in 1917 Paul and her fellow suffragists began a picketing campaign in front of the White House, enduring harassment and arrest. Sentenced to seven months in prison for obstructing traffic, Paul organized a hunger strike. When the newspapers covered the bad treatment the suffragists received, including force-feeding, public sentiment turned in their favor. By 1918 Wilson had decided to support woman suffrage.
The 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, passed Congress the next year and was ratified in 1920 by the final state of the 36 needed, Tennessee.
Three years later, Paul and the National Woman’s Party drafted an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and began lobbying Congress to approve it. The ERA finally passed in 1972, but not enough states ratified it by the 1982 deadline. Alice Paul was still fighting for it when she died in 1977.