Quaker, lawyer, and lifelong activist for women's rights, Alice Paul was born on January 11, 1885, in Moorestown, New Jersey, the daughter of William Mickle and Tacie (Parry) Paul. She was educated at Swarthmore (B.A. 1905) and the University of Pennsylvania (M.A. 1907, Ph.D. 1912), where her doctoral dissertation was on the legal status of women in Pennsylvania. She later earned law degrees from Washington College of Law (LL.B. 1922) and American University (LL.M. 1927, DC.L. 1928).
A social worker in New York City, 1905-1907, Paul also studied economics and sociology at the universities of London and Birmingham and worked at a number of British social settlements (1907-1910). While in England she was active in the Women's Social and Political Union and was arrested and jailed repeatedly as a participant in the campaign for women's rights led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia.
Returning to the United States in 1910, Paul was appointed chair of the Congressional Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1912. It campaigned for the passage of a federal amendment and for a time functioned concurrently with the new Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, founded by Paul in April 1913. A clash between advocates of a federal amendment and proponents of a state- by-state approach led to a split between the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage and National American Woman Suffrage Association in February 1914. In June 1916, the National Woman's Party was organized, its nucleus composed of Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage members and its sole plank a resolution calling for immediate passage of the federal amendment guaranteeing the enfranchisement of women (the "Susan B. Anthony Amendment"). This amendment was finally passed by Congress in 1919 and ratified as the Nineteenth Amendment in August 1920.
Following its reorganization in 1921, the National Woman's Party began a long battle to end all legal discrimination against women in the United States and to raise the legal, social, and economic status of women around the world. As written in 1923 by Paul, the Equal Rights Amendment (known also as the "Lucretia Mott Amendment") was first introduced in Congress in December of that year. For almost fifty years, the National Woman's Party had this or later versions of the ERA introduced in every session of Congress; it was passed in the House and Senate in 1971 and 1972, respectively but, with a 1982 deadline, failed to secure the votes necessary for ratification.
On the international front, in the 1920s the National Woman's Party campaigned for women's rights in conjunction with the Six Point Group and the Open Door Council, and in 1928 helped to establish the Inter-American Commission of Women, an advisory unit of the Pan American Union (later the Organization of American States). Beginning in 1930, the National Woman's Party, through its membership in Equal Rights International and with the Women's Consultative Committee on Nationality of the League of Nations, worked to improve the legal status of women. For ten years the National Woman's Party tried unsuccessfully to block the ratification of The Hague nationality convention of 1930, which contained several provisions that discriminated against women. Paul and the National Woman's Party also received little support from League delegates for the Equal Rights Treaty (modeled on the ERA) and the more limited Equal Nationality Treaty, which dealt only with citizenship.
In 1938 Paul founded the World Woman's Party in Geneva, Switzerland. Although it was forced to shift its headquarters to Washington, D.C., during World War II, the World Woman's Party continued to help European women and their families with nationality and refugee issues. After the war, the World Woman's Party lobbied successfully for the inclusion of equality provisions in the United Nations charter, and worked in close consultation with the Commission on the Status of Women and the Commission on Human Rights, both agencies of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, on numerous reports on the status of women, and on including equal rights provisions in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Almost all of Paul's life was devoted to her work in the National Woman's Party and World Woman's Party, and for the ERA, and her papers reflect this devotion. Most correspondence, even if partly personal, also touches on her work. Even her family was drawn into it to some extent: Paul's sister Helen served for a time as her secretary; they also occasionally lived together. Her nephew Donald, a would-be entrepreneur, was conservator of her estate, and so for a time was custodian of these papers. Both Helen and Donald were Christian Scientists.
Paul died in Moorestown, New Jersey, on July 9, 1977.