Born into a Quaker family, she had a comfortable upbringing. Her parents were strong supporters of gender equality and her mother was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
Growing up, she imbibed her parents’ values, principles and beliefs which were reflected in her life’s work. From a young age she believed that one should do whatever they could for the betterment of the society.
She was a very well-educated woman—rare in the early 20th century America—who used her knowledge and intelligence to fight for the rights of women less fortunate than herself. Her parents were Hicksite Quakers, and strong believers of gender equality.
Her mother was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association – a movement she too would join later on. Alice Paul enjoyed an education unusually impressive for its time: in 1905 she obtained her bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College, then continued on at Columbia and the University of Birmingham (England), earning a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania.
After this she began the study of law, which she completed with a second doctorate in 1928 from the American University. During these years she also worked as a social worker and was active in the militant wing of the women’s movement, in which she soon advanced to a leadership role.
In 1923, Paul proposed an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. Overcoming the opposition of women’s organizations who feared the loss of protective legislation, she helped gain acceptance of an era plank in the platforms of both major political parties in 1944.
She continued to work actively out of the National Woman’s party headquarters in Washington, D.C., until failing health forced her to relocate to the Connecticut countryside in 1972. Even then she continued to provide inspiration to new generations of women’s rights activists until her death in 1977.
After the vote was finally won in 1920 Alice Paul mobilized her Woman’s Party to fight for a constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to complete equality before the law (the “Equal Rights Amendment,” or ERA). She dedicated the rest of her long life to this one goal. She never married, for most important to her were the women with whom she shared her political work, in particular her closest friend and colleague Elsie Hill, with whom she lived for many years.
The ERA was in fact approved by Congress in 1972 but (given a campaign by reactionary forces) was unable to gain approval by the requisite number of states before the final deadline of 1982.
She did not relinquish power readily nor could she be easily persuaded to depart from the methods and tactics she had learned from the Pankhursts in England. But her vision for women always transcended her conservatism and rigidity. ‘I think if we get freedom for women, then they are probably going to do a lot of things that I wish they wouldn’t do,’ she said shortly before her death. ‘But it seems to me that isn’t our business to say what they should do with it.