composite of Alice Paul as a child and adult, in front of voting rights protest illustration

Illustrations by George Doutsiopoulos; (young Alice); Library of Congress (adult Alice)

She Grew Up to Fight for Women’s Rights

A hundred years ago, women in the U.S. won the right to vote, thanks to fearless leaders like Alice Paul.

Alice Paul sat in a filthy jail cell in Virginia. The year was 1917. The blanket on Paul’s bed hadn’t been washed in months, and the food was crawling with bugs. What crime had landed Paul in that awful place? She had been protesting for the right to vote.

Though suffrage is a basic right in a democracy, women in the U.S. gained that right only 100 years ago. And it took decades of struggle by activists like Paul to make it happen.

Where It All Began

Paul was born in New Jersey in 1885. Her family belonged to a religious group called the Quakers. They believed that men and women were equals. At the time, many Americans did not share that view. Growing up, Paul was taught that she had a responsibility to try to peacefully change injustices in society. 

Paul’s upbringing set the stage for her life’s work. After college, she became a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. In March 1913, Paul helped organize a protest parade in Washington, D.C. More than 5,000 suffragists marched to the White House. The march drew a huge crowd—including many people who didn’t support the cause. Angry onlookers shouted insults and pushed and tripped the marchers. But they wouldn’t be stopped.

“The parade brought visibility to the suffrage movement,” says Krista Niles. She works at the Alice Paul Institute.

A Tough Battle

Over the next few years, Paul wrote letters to Congress, gave speeches, and spread the word about her cause. Then, in 1917, she organized a group of more than 1,000 women to protest at the White House. No one had ever dared to protest outside the president’s home before.

For eight hours a day, rain or shine, groups of women took turns standing silently outside the White House gates. They held signs with messages such as “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”

After a few months, the police began to arrest the protesters. Although they were standing quietly on the sidewalk, more than 200 suffragists were charged with blocking traffic. That’s how Paul ended up in that filthy jail cell.

Winning the Vote

As word spread about their imprisonment, sympathy and support for the suffragists grew. The women were eventually released. More important, they could no longer be ignored. Feeling pressured, President Woodrow Wilson announced his support for women’s suffrage in 1918. Two years later, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, or officially approved. Women in the U.S. were finally granted the right to vote.

Until her death in 1977, Paul continued fighting for equal rights for women. 

“Alice Paul believed that one person can make a difference,” Niles says. “You don’t have to be wealthy or famous. It comes down to your personal courage.”

1. Why is Alice Paul considered an activist? Include an example from the article.

2. How did Paul’s childhood influence her view on women’s rights?

3. Explain what Krista Niles means when she says “The parade brought visibility to the suffrage movement.”

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