Alice Paul

Alice Paul, chairwoman of the National Women's Party, takes up needle and thread to put the last stitch in the suffrage banner, which had 36 stars to  represent the 36 states that ratified the 19th Amendment. (AP Photo, circa 1932)

You might not have ever heard of Alice Paul (1885-1977) before because I hadn’t until recently. I had never read about her in any history books, and if you Google inspirational women, her name doesn’t come up like Rosa Parks or Amelia Earhart.

In my sociology class at Yakima Valley College, my instructor played a movie for the class titled “Iron Jawed Angels” (2004) featuring Hilary Swank, Angelica Huston and Julia Ormond. The movie is about the American women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century and how women’s suffrage leaders Alice Paul and Lucy Burns fought for women’s right to vote.

As a young woman who can vote in a couple of years, I have never put much thought into it, or that there was a time when women weren’t allowed to vote. Today, we live in a society that tells us that women can do anything men can, or even do it better, so it’s hard to think things used to be any other way.

Nevertheless, gender used to be much more of a distinct and powerful dividing factor in the United States.

Alice Paul was a feminist, suffragist, political strategist and wife who spent her life fighting for the equal rights of all women. Paul was born in 1885 in New Jersey, a time when men ran the world and a woman’s place was at home in the kitchen. During this era, women stayed at home raising the children and rarely questioned men’s leadership.

Paul was born into a financially successful family of Quakers and was raised to believe in gender equality. Paul’s family’s liberal beliefs allowed for her to attend Swarthmore College, where she excelled as a student, earning a biology degree in 1905. She went on to earn her Master of Arts in sociology from the New York School of Philanthropy (modern day Columbia University) in 1906, and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1912.

In her youth, she played several sports that women of her era didn’t usually play, including basketball, baseball and field hockey.

Paul’s future destiny as a suffrage leader is thought to have been set in motion from the time she was a young girl. Paul’s mother, Tacie Parry Paul, was a suffragist and a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association; she often let her daughter accompany her to meetings. The passion and determination of these meetings inspired Alice Paul to get involved with the movement when she became older.

Paul was active in the women’s suffrage movement while living at home, but didn’t make legitimate progress until after 1907, while studying social work in Birmingham, England. There she met Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst, who were leaders of a suffrage movement in England. Paul joined their movement and participated in demonstrations that included breaking windows to draw attention to the cause, hunger strikes and protests on the streets.

Paul’s actions didn’t go unnoticed, eventually landing her in jail.

In 1910, Paul returned home to the U.S. and continued her work in the suffrage movement. She’d made a name for herself in England that followed her back to the U.S.

Paul’s largest women’s rights move was the “Woman Suffrage Procession” on March 3, 1913. She organized this large march of approximately 8,000 marchers in Washington, D.C., the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Unfortunately, many people were opposed to the march, including various policemen, and its peaceful beginnings soon turned into harassment of the marchers, with many of them being treated for injuries at local hospitals afterward. Nevertheless, with many thousands of spectators, the march accomplished what it set forth to do, although it would take another seven years for the 19th Amendment to make it through Congress, securing the vote for women on Aug. 18, 1920.

In the end, Paul had defied all the odds, and women were finally granted the right to vote.

•Victoria Prather is a junior at Toppenish High School and a member of the Yakima Herald-Republic’s Unleashed program for teen journalists.