The American feminist Alice Paul went to England in 1908 to study social work. Her involvement with the British suffragette movement changed the course of her life — and of American history. This is the 1st article of my series Ask Her About Her Zero F*cks.
Look at this lady. Who the hell does she think she is? The defiant young woman in this photograph is none other than the (in)famous American suffragist Alice Paul (1885–1977). She and another suffragette are in the Guildhall Police Court in London, on trial for disrupting the Lord Mayor’s banquet by breaking a window and shouting “Votes for women!” at the horrified crowd below the gallery where both women had been hiding. They were sentenced to a month in London’s notorious women’s prison, Holloway, and following suffragette protocol went on a hunger strike and were force-fed repeatedly. Before sentencing them, the judge called them “hysterical creatures” who should have “known better.”
Alice Paul is known to students of American history as the leader of the National Woman’s Party, a militant women’s suffrage organization that confronted the Woodrow Wilson administration during the First World War. When many people hear “suffragists,”* they think of two things: Susan B. Anthony (because Susan B. Anthony) and Alice’s White House pickets:
*For an excellent exploration of whom else we should think about when we hear “suffragists”, please see this collection from the New York Times.
The majority of these pickets were arrested at one point or another between 1917 and 1918, and over 150 of them served prison sentences of varying lengths. In each picket’s arrest, the District of Columbia slapped her with “obstructing traffic,” an objectively bullshit charge. The women’s arrests and imprisonment were declared illegal in 1918.
In our popular imagination, these women loom large as early civil rights heroes, pioneering the tactics of passive resistance and civil disobedience 50 years before the Civil Rights Movement made these into best practices. But in their time, the NWP suffragists were mocked and vilified by the media and public. Alice Paul, the HBIC and therefore the allegorical stand-in for all radical suffragists, was the most mocked and vilified among them.
While Alice was on hunger strike in the District Prison in 1917, a particularly nasty critic wrote a letter to the editor of a major newspaper wishing for the “miserable creature” to “starve to death” instead of be forcibly fed by the prison physician. The critic was also a woman, because misogyny knows no gender. Later for the haters, though. American women won the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits denial of a citizen’s right to vote based on sex.**
**Not all women at once! Can’t have too much of a good thing now, can we!
Before Alice Paul became the Bad Girl Suffragist, with her “militant,” “radical,” and “hysterical” approach to late First Wave feminism, she was even more of all of that back in the UK. In 1908, an intelligent and driven Quaker girl from rural New Jersey travelled to England on a scholarship to study the nascent profession of social work. Alice Paul was only 23, but already had a Master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and big goals for herself of teaching in Europe. No sooner had she sunk her teeth into social work did she rapidly sour on it, becoming disaffected and lost on her career path. She found purpose when she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, AKA the suffragettes. These women were basically terrorists, short of taking human life (although that almost happened later in the movement), and the British public feared and despised them. Their ranks were filled by restless women who needed purpose and belonging. In other words, Alice had found her clique.
The suffragettes were brilliant at marketing themselves and attracted mostly younger, educated women who wanted to fight for their right to vote, not their daughters’ or granddaughters.’ They were impatient and ready to try anything to shock Parliament into acting on women’s suffrage. Tapping into some latent f*ck-around-and-find-out energy, they molded Alice into one of their own, as in:
Alice started as a newsie, selling the WSPU’s paper Votes for Women on street corners where she was regularly harassed and pelted with rocks, spit, and garbage. She eventually became a soapbox speaker (again, ducking flying garbage) and worked her way into organizing for the WSPU. Emmeline Pankhurst, the Mother Superior of all Suffragettes, trusted Alice and fellow Yankee suffragette Lucy Burns enough to bring them along on an organizing tour of Scotland in the fall of 1909.
Alice was arrested multiple times and served three prison terms during her suffragette career. The British and American newspapers had a field day with the outlandish tale of a genteel New Jersey Quaker turning into, well, a terrorist. Her family and friends in Moorestown, NJ were either extremely proud of or extremely embarrassed by Alice’s exploits.
When she returned to the United States in 1910, her reputation was such that the press thronged the pier in Philadelphia when her steamer arrived. They expected a burly, raging Amazon of a woman (LOL) but got all 100 lbs. of this gal:
How disappointing! Suffragettes were supposed to be cavewomen in petticoats or whatnot, and she looked suspiciously normal. No local suffrage groups from the City of Sisterly Affection were on this pier to welcome her home, however, because even if she did not look like a threat to their own reputations, she still was. Not that she cared, as evidenced by this picture taken in 1912 when she received her PhD from Penn:
See that brooch on her doctor hood? That was the Portcullis Brooch, awarded by the WSPU to members who served prison terms and hunger-struck for the Cause. Designed by Sylvia Pankhurst, the brooch is a prison door with the arrow detail from prisoner uniforms in the WSPU colors violet, white, and green:
Any woman wearing this swag did so to advertise her suffragette criminal record. Alice wore it with pride and carried on her work of introducing suffragette-like tactics to the American movement. This pissed off the Suffrage Establishment royally, leading to her, her partner-in-badassery Lucy Burns, and their small but belligerent splinter organization getting the boot from the bigwigs.
Alice’s suffragists (suffragists, thank you, not suffragettes) did not foment riots or destroy property, but they did use the nonviolent publicity-raising methods of the WSPU, and in 1913 tried to adopt their colors before a bigwig shot that down. They branded themselves with purple, white, and gold instead and put that shit on everything:
The NWP also made a flag in these colors with one star for each state that ratified the 19th Amendment. This flag can be seen in what is arguably the most famous picture of Alice Paul, taken in August of 1920, wherein she raises a glass of Prohibition-friendly iced tea to the Ratification Flag after Tennessee became the 36th and final state to ratify the 19th Amendment:
With the right to vote won, Alice packed up and retired to a life of quiet non-controversy.
Just kidding. This is Alice Paul we’re talking about. Alice was only 35 when the 19th Amendment was ratified. She went on get three law degrees from American University, write and work tirelessly for the Equal Rights Amendment, develop not one but two international women’s organizations, advocate for women’s rights to the United Nations, and convince racist Southern Congressmen to put the word “sex” in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (they thought it would kill the bill, but guess who had the last laugh). When Alice died at 92 in 1977, she had been continuously involved in feminist activism for 69 years. Homegirl didn’t play.
If she had never fallen in with the “hysterical creatures” known as suffragettes, Alice Paul *maybe* would have become a chill, disengaged suffragist in an American organization, or would have lived a scholarly life in France or Germany, removed from boots-on-the-ground social struggle. We may have never heard of her. That would have been an enormous loss for our society.
Alice’s work is never done; it lives on in the still-unratified Equal Rights Amendment, which should just be in the damn Constitution already. Recent voter suppression efforts are evidence that the suffrage fight is not over, despite how many years and how many people sacrificing how much? Either way, we can thank the rowdy hellraising suffragettes for making this unconventional heroine of ours. Ask her about her zero f*cks.
- About Alice Paul (Alice Paul Institute)
- Conversations with Alice Paul, an oral history conducted in 1972–3
- Women of Protest, Library of Congress
Where and What:
- Her family’s property is now the Alice Paul Institute, which provides leadership programs for young women in appropriate homage to the humble Alice, who never wrote about herself and did not want a museum or statues in her honor.
- The Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument is housed in the old NWP headquarters in Washington, DC, and from personal experience the weight of history drops on one’s shoulders just walking into the mansion.
- The Harvard Radcliffe Institute’s collection of Alice’s papers is a revealing trove of documents that show the evolution of Alice’s feminist consciousness and work.
- The Museum of London exhibit on suffragettes, with an extensive collection of suffragette ephemera.
- Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes. Diane Atkinson, Bloomsbury 2018
- Jailed for Freedom: American Women Win the Vote. Doris Stevens, 1920. This is a primary source account of White House picketing and arrests, written by NWP leader Doris Stevens, who worked closely with Alice Paul during both the suffrage and ERA campaigns.
- Alice Paul: Claiming Power. JD Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry, Oxford University Press 2014
- A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot. Mary Walton, Palgrave Macmillan 2010
- Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait? Alice Paul, Woodrow Wilson, and the Fight for the Right to Vote. Tina Cassidy, 37INK/Atria, 2019