Alice Paul is a pioneering feminist of the early 20th century and was a leader in the suffragette movement. Born in 1885, Paul was the daughter of Quaker parents, an upbringing that inspired her fight for quality. Though her name is not well known throughout the country, she has had a lasting impact on American history. Despite her inspiring story, there are dark undercurrents in her beliefs that run rampant with racism, severely undermining her credibility as a fighter for equal rights.
Alice Paul growing up
The main responsibility Paul learned was to leave the world a better place. She grew up with the belief in the equality of gender, a key idea of the Hicksite Quakers. Growing up in such an environment at the time was unique. It can also be seen as a driving force for other suffragists at the time, like Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott.
Paul spent her life fighting for the equality of women. She was one of the leaders of the “Silent Sentinels” who stood outside of the White House during the Wilson years. They protested in favor of suffrage and were the first to picket in front of the White House. When she was sent to prison, she was mistreated due to her protests. However, she stayed firm, especially as the prisons would not treat her like a political prisoner. In 1923, she penned the Equal Rights Amendment, which she spent the rest of her life campaigning for. Unfortunately, this last fight remains unfulfilled, as the ERA has not reached a critical threshold as of late 2021.
Her legacy today
Alice Paul today “stands before us in American history as both an inspiration to follow and an example to avoid.” While she fought for equal rights, she only fought for those who were white. She actively privileged the vote of white women over the integration and cooperation with black suffragists and activists of the time. She saw this as the path that would lead to the best likelihood of success.
In the winter of 1913, Paul, along with a group of suffragists, held a procession in favor of the women’s vote. Initially, she tried to completely exclude non-white activists but eventually allowed them to join. However, she segregated them and relegated them to the back of the procession, where she hoped they would not be seen or heard. Some activists, like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, cut into the procession where they could walk alongside their white compatriots. Yet, the large majority were left to the back, having to deal with the same racism and discrimination they were supposedly fighting against.
Paul argued that “our winning suffrage will be the thing that will most raise the state of Negro women.” She believed “a purely suffrage demonstration entirely uncomplicated by any other problems such as racial ones.” She did not take into account the importance of a fight that included all marginalized sectors of society. Paul did not take the time to do the work and engage with black activists and understand that racism and sexism are intricately interwoven. No matter how hard you try, you will not be able to separate one from the other.
Universities that bear her namesake are beginning to question her legacy. Spaces are supposed to be welcoming and engaging to all people, regardless of background and identity. Then how can they bear the name of a woman who actively fought to keep certain sects of the population outside of the fight for freedom?
Institutions like the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College that claim her as a student must contend with the complicated legacy she carries. They must evaluate what it means to keep her as a symbol of power and change. Alice Paul, much like most people, cannot be categorized in a silo as either ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ She was a woman who fought for her convictions and helped the United States move closer to equality. She was flawed in her person and activism and restrained by her racism.
The racism may have been deeply held or integrated from society – it does not matter. The fact is that her actions, both in her context and in the context of today, were harmful and damaged the fight for equality. One marginalized group will never be truly freed if there are other groups in chains. The fight for equality must include everyone. Otherwise, it will always fall short and fail. No one will ever be able to question the important and lasting legacy of Alice Paul. But we must remember it is a complicated legacy that can not be taken at face value.