Spring 2016

An Audacious Fight

By Nicolas Brulliard

Force-feeding and imprisonment could not stop suffragist Alice Paul’s march forward. A new park site would tell her story.

Horse-drawn floats, trumpeters, banners, and thousands of marchers. Everything was ready for the woman suffrage movement’s biggest splash yet: a parade down Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 inauguration. Then trouble started. The women found their route barred by scores of men, some visibly drunk. Soon, the hecklers were yelling at the suffragists, even shoving, hitting, and spitting at them while police stood idle or joined in the abuse. The nightmare ended only when the cavalry arrived to break up the crowd.

Alice Paul had orchestrated the parade to garner attention and breathe new energy into the suffrage movement. She was more successful than she expected: The violence against the marchers and the congressional hearings that followed ultimately magnified the event’s impact.

This mistreatment by police “was probably the best thing that could ever have happened to us,” Paul wrote to a supporter shortly after the march, “as it aroused a great deal of public indignation and sympathy.”

The women’s suffrage struggle is a collective effort that spanned many decades, but the audacity and relentlessness of Alice Paul and her troops helped the movement get over the finish line and secure passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women in all states the right to vote—although many African-American women remained effectively disenfranchised for several decades after that.

Breaking with the mainstream movement’s more sedate tactics, Paul’s suffragists confronted the establishment directly. Several years after the parade, they picketed the White House demanding that the president support the constitutional amendment. Their unprecedented demonstrations helped sway Wilson, whose reversal gave crucial momentum to the suffrage effort. Yet despite the achievements of Paul and her comrades—and the imprisonments, beatings, and hunger strikes they endured—none of them has become a household name.

That could change if the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum in Washington, D.C., which served as Paul’s longtime residence and the headquarters of her organization, becomes a full-fledged national park site. Last summer, Maryland’s Sen. Barbara Mikulski introduced a bill calling for the designation, and the National Park Service said in a recent study that the site—currently a museum affiliated with the agency—would fill gaps in the Park System’s representation of the women’s rights movement. It would also allow the budget-constrained museum to reach greater numbers through extended visiting hours.


Besides parades and pickets, Alice Paul’s suffragists used sophisticated lobbying tactics to advance their goals, keeping detailed information on congressional members’ voting records, hobbies, and relatives’ sentiment toward suffrage. The museum’s collections include about 3,000 voting cards.

“What we hear more than anything when people come through is, ‘How come I didn’t learn this in school?’” said Page Harrington, the executive director of the Capitol Hill museum. “It really is left out.”

It was during a two-day convention in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, that suffrage activists enshrined their demand for the right to vote in a Declaration of Sentiments. But progress was slow. A suffrage amendment was soundly defeated in a Senate vote in 1887, and only a handful of states granted women the right to vote over the six decades that followed the 1848 convention.

Born in 1885 to a comfortable Quaker family in New Jersey, Paul did not seem predestined to challenge the status quo. It’s only when she left the country at the age of 22 that she found her true calling. While studying in England, she attended a speech by a leading suffrage advocate and later decided to participate in some of the activists’ most daring actions, undergoing weeks of jail time and force-feeding.

When she came back to the United States, Paul sought to invigorate the movement with more confrontational action but did so more as a strategist than a foot soldier. “She just didn’t enjoy being the center of attention, but she liked to control things behind the scenes,” said J.D. Zahniser, co-author of Alice Paul: Claiming Power.

Her willingness to hold the reigning Democratic Party accountable, even if that meant alienating Democratic supporters, was at odds with the more diplomatic approach of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. After enlisting the support of wealthy socialite Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and others, Paul established a separate National Woman’s Party in 1916.

In January 1917, Paul staged the controversial White House picket. This was a first in history, said Robert Cooney, author of Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement. For ten months, groups of women deployed banners urging Wilson to support the suffrage amendment. After the United States entered the Great War in April, the “silent sentinels” pointed out what they saw as Wilson’s hypocrisy in defending democracy abroad while denying it to women at home.

The protest was met with a string of arrests and increasingly long sentences. At seven months, Paul’s was the longest. Suffering abusive incarceration conditions, she and fellow activists went on a hunger strike and underwent force-feeding, echoing Paul’s experience in England. Fearing the death of the prisoners, authorities relented and released all of them in November 1917.

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Earlier that month, New York had become the largest Eastern state to grant women the right to vote, and a few weeks later Wilson finally threw his support behind a constitutional amendment. In 1919, Congress passed the amendment, and 36 states ratified it over the next 14 months. It was signed into law the next year.

After winning the vote, Paul and the National Woman’s Party set their sights on other legislative action, including the Equal Rights Amendment that was passed by Congress but never ratified. Paul, who never married or had children, remained an activist for the rest of her life but always considered her suffrage work the highlight of her career. She said as much a few months before her death in 1977, in a rare interview published in The New York Times.

“The most useful thing that I ever did,” she said, “was having a part in getting the vote for all the women.”

About the author

  • Nicolas Brulliard Senior Editor

    Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as senior editor of National Parks magazine.

This article appeared in the Spring 2016 issue

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