#11 Alice Paul: Women’s Vote, Her Single Focus – Childhood and Young Adulthood

Alice Paul’s story raises several continuing questions for me: the responsibility of leaders for their supporters and active followers and the best way to write about their “warts,” the shortcomings that sometimes hurt others. The beginning of her story before the American campaign for a constitutional amendment gives me important background to deal with these two questions in the next posts.

Alice Paul was born on her Quaker family’s historic home, Paulsdale Farm, near Moorestown, New Jersey, on January 11, 1885. The area, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, had been settled by a large number of Quakers in the late 17th and early 18th. They built meetinghouses as centers of their communities. The meetings supported the equality of women from the beginning and established schools where boys and girls received similar education. From 1776 to 1807, women had the state constitutional right to vote, confirmed in 1790 and 1797 by the inclusive and specific use of “men” and “women” and “his” and “her” in the state documents.

Alice Paul’s father, William Mickle Paul, descended from the earliest Quakers in the area, was an influential banker and a leader in his Quaker meeting, which had followed Elias Hicks at the time of the Quaker schism in 1827. The Hicksite meeting supported gender equality, abolition, and social justice. He was always very busy, had high expectations for all four of his children, and was strict and detached from most of his family. Alice’s mother, Tacie Parry Paul, was different in a number of ways. Her father, William Parry, had been one of the founders of Swarthmore College, a friend of Lucretia and James Mott. Tacie had attended Swarthmore but had to leave when she married William Paul as the college did not allow married women to enroll. Tacie was a generous, kind, and supportive person, interested in her children’s activities, and open to new ideas. She was active in her Quaker meeting and enrolled Alice and her three younger siblings – William, Helen, and Parry – in Moorestown Friends School. They also did farm and house chores though the heavy work was done by hired labor. Although the family lived simply, by Alice’s teen years the farm had electricity, running water, and indoor plumbing.

Alice was an excellent student, graduating at the top of her class. Her father was proud of her academic achievements and usually her spunk. She learned the value of hard work and carrying a project to completion. She was shy, but known to do things her own way, something that sometimes puzzled her father. When the other children, like most of their classmates, rode in a carriage to school, Alice went by horseback across the fields. Her mother was involved with the National Association for Woman’s Suffrage (NAWS) and often took Alice to the meetings with her as a companion. In her early years, Alice did not find the meetings very engaging, but in her teens the business piqued her interest. “Gender equality was always present.” Her Quaker role models were her mother, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony. Raised in a comfortable Quaker home, Alice lacked contact with the poor and people of color and thus had little sympathy or understanding of the problems they had and the lives they led.

When Alice went to Swarthmore College at 16, she experienced newfound freedom and an increased world of knowledge and ideas. She enjoyed her studies and began to have a wider circle of friends. Her father died after her first year, but it changed her life little though she felt freer to break rules she found silly. She sometimes delighted her roommates by making chocolate fudge by with a gaslight and breaking curfew to roam the town and return with her discoveries. She found dancing and music, never allowed at home, to be fun activities. Her male contacts were limited by strict college rules. Not even riding on the same sled was allowed. Chosen to be the Ivy Poet and present her poem at graduation, she worried about such a public performance. Her friend, Mabel Vernon, helped her prepare and she was able to carry out her task.

Following her graduation with a degree in biology, she applied to the New York School of Philanthropy, now Columbia School of Social Work, where students lived in a building near their poor, mostly immigrant clients. It was a world totally new to her. She worked hard to improve their lives but found the bureaucracy an impediment to change. Frustrated, she completed her studies at the University of Pennsylvania in sociology, economics, and political science. Then she used a Quaker scholarship to attend Woodbrooke Quaker Study Center in Birmingham, England. While there, she took economics courses as the first woman in the commerce department of the local university and traveled to Berlin to learn German.

On a trip to London, she met Cristabel Pankhurst, a radical suffrage activist with a fervor that touched Alice and caused the seed planted in her childhood at those NAWS committee meetings to burst forth. Why? Alice was 20 years old, far from home, newly on her own, and still fretting over her inability to make changes in the lives she touched in New York. Her female spirit was bruised. She was in England, the birthplace of Quakerism, where young people had followed George Fox, ready to suffer persecution as they responded to the “call.” Working with the Pankhursts, she saw a possibility for her future and became a “heart and soul” convert to women’s suffrage. Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters saw not only commitment but also intellectual skills and boundless energy. They welcomed her and helped bring her into a world of demonstrations, street speeches, marches, and sometimes militant responses to government officials and politicians unwilling to support their call for women’s suffrage. The Pankhursts held those in power responsible for needed change, supporters or not.

Alice Paul found passing out fliers and the organizational newspaper, Vote for Women, a dirty, noisy, sometimes dangerous task. She was not brave by nature and at first frustrated by her own lack of boldness. She reached back to her childhood persistence and became good at speaking on street corners, no longer terrified by hecklers or the objects they hurled. Joining the Pankhursts to pay her living expenses, she found Emmeline Pankhurst to be autocratic despite her democratic goal, a demander of loyalty, a master of tactics and detail, courageous, and charismatic. When the campaign led to rock throwing and window breaking, the suffragists ended up being arrested and jailed. There, Alice followed the Pankhursts’ lead to demand “political” status to provide some benefits not offered to regular prisoners and then to hunger strikes. The latter led to force-feeding, an increasingly painful experience. Alice endured and took a long time to reveal to her mother the extent of her activities and their consequences. She saw the movement getting some results. That is what she wanted. It was her introduction to “passive resistance,” at least in the Pankhurst style. Her mother accepted this Quaker explanation for “civil disobedience” but did not understand Alice’s transformation from a “mild-mannered girl.” Her cousin Mickle Paul supported her independent thought and actions based on her testimony as recalling those of her Quaker relatives in earlier days.

In 1909, Alice, totally exhausted and still recuperating from the injuries of her prison treatment, came home to Paulsdale Farm. She rested for a short while and then returned to the University of Pennsylvania to complete her PhD studies, stimulated by a strong desire to know more about politics and the sociology of change.

The next post will follow Alice Paul’s story from the beginning of her American campaign for a constitutional amendment to get women the vote through her 50+ years working for the ERA amendment and international recognition of gender equality.

Questions to consider:

  • How did Alice Paul’s family relationships and Quaker upbringing influence her early commitment to gender equality?
  • If you could go back in time, what questions would you ask Alice Paul about her movement from her “patience, prayer, and petition” approach to making a better world in her early days to her positive response to the Pankhursts’ more confrontational approach?
  • Alice Paul had an active, engaging mind. How does that show up in her childhood, teenage, and young adult academic pursuits?


  • A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballet by Mary Walton
  • True Life of Alice Paul by Dona Herweck Rice
  • Women Who Dared by Linda Skeers
  • “It Happened Here: New Jersey, Women’s Suffrage: Crash Course US History #31” 9/26/2013, you.tube 3/20/2014
  • “Alice Paul: How Her Quaker Roots Shaped Her Gender Activism,” by Jessica Mendoza, Christian Science Monitor, 1/11/2016

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