President Barack Obama, on the 12th of this month, signed the necessary paperwork under the Antiquities Act to establish a national monument to the history of women's equality in the United States. This act added to the National Park Service the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument in Washington, D.C. Formerly known as the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, the property contains a library, museum, and extensive material associated with the National Woman's Party (NWP). The founder of the NWP was Alice Paul who lived and worked at this house as she promoted women's right to vote, rewrote the Equal Rights Amendment, and fought for its passage in Congress.
The Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument. Source of image:
Wikimedia Commons. Built by Robert Sewall in 1799- 1800, this is the oldest
house still standing in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Alice Paul was born in Paulsdale, New Jersey, on January 11, 1885. Her family was descended from William Penn and were participating members of the Religious Society of Friends. Alice attended the Moorestown Friends School and afterwards Swarthmore College, a school co-founded by her grandfather. She graduated from Swarthmore in 1905 with a bachelor's degree in biology. She later attended the University of Pennsylvania, earning both a masters degree and a Ph.D. in sociology.
Alice Paul as a young girl. Source of image: Wikimedia Commons.
Between her bachelor's degree from Swarthmore and attending the University of Pennsylvania, Alice spent a fellowship year working in a settlement house on the Lower East Side of New York. Her experience at the Henry Street Settlement House convinced her that social work was not the way to fight injustice in this country but rather only political action could generate the kind of change that was needed.
Alice continued her studies at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham, England, after completing her masters degree at the University of Pennsylvania. She heard Christabel Pankhurst speak while in Birmingham and later moved to London where she joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) led by Christabel and her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst. Affiliation with this group showed Alice the militant side of political action to gain suffrage for women in England. She participated in a number of suffrage demonstrations and was three times arrested for her activities. During her last incarceration, she participated in a hunger strike which resulted in being force-fed and badly injured during the process.
Alice returned to the United States in 1910 and immediately became involved with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) which, at the time, was languishing due to internal divisions and the death, in 1907, of its former leader Susan B. Anthony.
Alice Paul in 1915. Source of image: Wikimedia Commons.
Alice was already well-known in America from English newspaper articles that described her activity with the WSPU and her incarcerations. She instantly injected the American movement with renewed vigor and purpose using her organizational skills and lessons learned from the Pankhursts. Her first major project was to organize the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession which took place in Washington, D.C. the day before President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration.
Program from the Woman Suffrage Procession. Source of image: Wikimedia Commons.
Alice, Lucy Burns, and a group of their colleagues mobilized no fewer than 5,000 women to march in the parade, sending word across the country for women's rights advocates to join them. The resulting spectacle was like nothing before seen in Washington. Alice marched with a group of Swarthmore friends, all dressed in white. They were joined by many college-aged women who had become attracted to the movement by Alice Paul and her followers.
Thousands of spectators lined the streets to either cheer or jeer as the small army of suffragettes passed by with signs and flags, some on horseback. It was reported that Wilson arrived by train in Washington while the procession was underway and demanded to know why there was no crowed of well-wishers to greet him. He was told: "Everyone is watching the Woman Suffrage Parade, Sir." (Stiehm.) He was not pleased and this annoyance only increased what would be a long-standing dislike that Wilson developed for Alice Paul - a feeling that was mutual.
Alice Paul raising a glass to the suffragist banner. Source of image: Wikimedia Commons.
The Woman's Suffrage Procession did not end peacefully. Although a permit had been granted to hold the event, the police coverage was not adequate to deal with the open hostility that broke out when a mob of men began hurling bricks and stones at the marchers and some of the police actually joined in the attack. One hundred women were hospitalized from injuries suffered during this violent outbreak and the cavalry was actually called out to stop the bedlam and protect the women marchers.
If the issue of woman's suffrage had not been given serious attention up until the procession, it certainly was thereafter. Tension grew within NAWSA over the aggressive tactics being employed to earn the vote and, in 1916, Alice broke from the organization and formed the National Woman's Party (NWP). With the NWP, the focus shifted to achieving an amendment to the Constitution while keeping the issue in the forefront through what were called "Silent Sentinels" of woman holding signs demanding the vote, repeated public demonstrations, and even chaining themselves to the gates of the White House to demand passage of an amendment that would give them the vote. Many of the suffragettes, including Alice, were arrested and imprisoned for these activities, living under brutal prison conditions that included force-feeding with hoses when they refused to eat.
Alice Paul sewing stars on a suffragist banner. Source of image: Wikimedia Commons.
Finally, in June of 1919, the United States Senate passed the suffrage amendment and the battle began to have it ratified by all state legislatures. The Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was finally ratified in August 1920 by one vote in Tennessee. This vote was cast by Assembly Member Henry Burn - but only after his mother, Febb Burn, sent him a telegram demanding that he change his vote to "yes".
Later in life, Alice fought to provide protection to women in the Civil Rights Act. She was the original author of an Equal Rights Amendment that was passed by the Senate and the House in 1972 but was not approved by the minimum of thirty-eight states needed to ensure its ratification.
Alice lived to be ninety-two years old, passing away at the Quaker Greenleaf Extension Home in Moorestown, New Jersey, on July 9, 1977. She actively promoted women's rights until the end, exemplifying the Quaker expression: "Let your life speak." In 2012, a $10.00 gold piece was issued in her honor and the newly dedicated Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument now also commemorates the contributions of her life and work.
Bacon, Margaret Hope. Mothers of Feminism, The Story of Quaker Women in America. Philadelphia: Friends general Conference, 1986.
National Park Service announcement of the addition of the Belmont-Paul Woman's Equality Monument to the Park Service System at http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com.
Sewall-Belmont House and Museum at http://sewallbelmont.org/learn/overview.
Stiehm, Jamie. "When Suffrage Was Cool, Our own revolutionary, Alice Paul, crossed the finish line to victory." In the Swarthmore College Bulletin, January, 2014.
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2016.