Alice Paul Comes to Birmingham

Alice Paul, The Birmingham Age-Herald
Alice Paul is one of those overlooked figures in history. Her name belongs with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony as an advocate for women’s suffrage. In May 1917, Alice Paul came to Birmingham, stayed in the Tutwiler Hotel, and made a speech that incited controversy among the citizens of Birmingham.

Who was Alice Paul, and why is her visit to Birmingham important? Alice Paul was the leader of the National Women’s Party and campaigned for a federal amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would grant women nationwide the right to vote. Previous suffrage movements had concentrated on a state by state approach in which each individual state would vote to grant the right to vote to women. Paul was not content to wait patiently for each state to grant women the right to vote, and believed that the support of President Woodrow Wilson was necessary to make Congress ratify a suffrage amendment.

In January 1917, Alice Paul organized the first ever picket of the White House by the National Women's Party, and suffragists served as “silent sentinels” picketing the White House gates in the midst of threats, verbal abuse, and physical violence from onlookers. Their banners read: “Mr. President How Long Must Women Wait for their Liberty?” As time passed, their banners became more damaging towards Wilson and even used his own words against him to support suffrage. At the United States entered World War I, many Americans felt that the act of picketing the White House was a sign of disloyalty in a time of a war.

"Silent Sentinel." Courtesy of The Library of Congress
"Silent Sentinel." Courtesy of National Archives

In May 1917, Alice Paul visited Birmingham at the request of Pattie Ruffner Jacobs, who led Birmingham’s suffrage efforts. When asked about the National Women's Party's position regarding the war, Paul stated, "Every individual is free to act as she sees fits, regarding all matters pertaining to the war; we sponsor only one issue: suffrage." Some citizens of Birmingham felt that women’s suffrage was a distraction to the war efforts, and opposed Paul’s presence in the city.
Paul gave her speech at The Tutwiler Hotel and continued organizing pickets of the White House.

By the summer of 1917, Washington D.C.’s police started arresting the suffragists under the guise of “obstruction of traffic.” When the suffragists refused to pay their fines, they ended up in jail. Alice Paul was arrested on October 20, 1917, and sent to the Occoquan Workhouse, which was known for its horrible condition and improper treatment of prisoners. To draw attention to the cause, Paul went on a hunger strike, and the guards ended up force feeding her and the other suffragists who followed suit. Newspapers reported the mistreatment of Paul and other suffragists, and public outcry urged the release of Paul and other suffragists. They were released at the end of November 1917.

In January 1918, President Wilson announced his support of the suffrage amendment; one year after Paul first organized the pickets of the White House. Congress passed the 19th amendment in 1919. However, it did not become law until three-fourths of the states ratified the amendment. Like the majority of Southern states, Alabama’s legislature rejected the 19th amendment in September 1919, but Tennessee’s ratification in August 1920 made the 19th Amendment law and gave women the right to vote. Alice Paul continued to fight for women’s rights through authoring the original Equal Rights Amendment (1923) and the inclusion of sex as protected category under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

For those who would like to read a biography of this remarkable woman, check out Alice Paul: Claiming Power. If you are more inclined to watch a movie, Iron Jawed Angels is a moving film that vividly depicts the triumphs and tragedies experienced by Alice Paul and the suffragists in their quest for the right to vote.

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Unknown said…
Thanks for the shout-out for my biography of Alice Paul!

Please note that Paul never spent time at the Occoquan Workhouse in VA; all her jail time in the U.S. was spent at the District of Columbia Jail.

J. D. Zahniser