Advocating for Human Rights

Alice Paul, a descendant of William Penn, grew up in the Quaker tradition of public service. She attended college at Swarthmore, which her grandfather founded. Upon graduation, she spent a year living at a Settlement House in New York City. This is where she gained firsthand experience with the injustices of being poor. She would go on to earn a Master’s degree.

She then went to England to work on women’s suffrage. She was arrested often and served three jail terms. She became a practitioner of civil disobedience including going on a hunger strike. Her health was permanently impacted, and later in life, she often developed frequent medical issues.

When Alice returned to the U.S. she continued her education and earned a Ph.D. She continued to work on women’s right to vote. Prior to the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, Alice organized a massive parade in Washington DC to pressure the new President to fight for women’s suffrage. She was able to get the right to use Pennsylvania Avenue after much resistance. On the day of the parade, leaders tried to keep the parade from happening. The police did little to help.

Following the parade, Alice and others started picketing at the White House. They were known as the Silent Sentinels. Alice and others were arrested, convicted, and sent to jail for exercising the rights of assembly guaranteed in the Constitution. While in jail, Alice organized a hunger strike. She was sent to the psychiatric unit and force-fed raw eggs.

The pressure on President Wilson became so intense that he finally agreed to initiate the amendment process to give women the right to vote. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1919 and ratified in 1920.

Alice continued to work for human rights. She was active in the development of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which has yet to be ratified. She also played a major role in adding protection for women in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Fighting for freedom often involves years of sustained engagement, hardship, and moral leadership. What drives such efforts is the prospect of opening up society. In contrast, those who advocate for societal exclusions can rarely sustain their engagement because they lack the moral vision to gain the support of the general public. Just imagine the courage of Alice Paul and others to forsake a comfortable life to fight for the rights of others.

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            “It is better, as far as getting the vote is concerned, I believe, to have a small, united group than an immense debating society.” – Alice Paul

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