With all the progress women are seeing today, we often forget to look back.
Fortunately in New Jersey, there’s a place nearby where you can connect with one of the godmothers of the women’s movement. Just drive to Mount Laurel in Burlington County, and there in the midst of a 1950s subdivision is Paulsdale, the birthplace of Alice Stokes Paul and home to the Alice Paul Institute.
The API is a nonprofit organization dedicated to celebrating the life and work of Paul, American suffragist and gender equality activist. Founded in the mid-1980s, API furthers Paul’s work through educational and leadership training programs at the site.
Paul (January 11, 1885 to July 9, 1977) was the architect of some of the most outstanding political achievements on behalf of women in the 20th century.
Born to Quaker parents, she dedicated her life to securing equal rights for women. In fact, it was her Quaker upbringing that spurred young Alice to search within and find her soul’s purpose — working to promote social justice.
Among the many accomplishments in her long life was Paul’s tenacious fight for suffrage, which culminated in the passing of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving American women the legal right to vote on August 26, 1920.
Each year at the API that victorious day is marked as close to the actual date as possible with A Night in Suffrage White. This year the sophisticated outdoor dinner gathering – in which participants are invited to dress in all white — will be held Saturday, August 24, from 6 to 8 p.m. (Tickets are $20, and as of this early summer writing, were going quickly.)
“We hold this event to bring awareness and help celebrate the date in which women won the vote and were finally able to participate in democracy,” says Krista Joy Niles, outreach and civic engagement director at the API. “The date has been denoted as a national day of remembrance, and the event is a good way to bring people to Paulsdale, Alice Paul’s childhood home.”
The dinner has become so popular that curious people begin to call the API in January asking for tickets. Niles says that 180 people came to the event in 2018 and estimates the number might surpass 250 this year.
“We’ve scaled it up as things have grown, but we’re ready to hold a large crowd: the lawn is just beautiful here, and there are plenty of places to set up,” Niles says. “People seem to enjoy this camaraderie, this way to bring friends to such a special landmark.”
“We wear all white because it was the color suffragettes would wear in parades and marches, but the night is also akin to ‘Diner a Blanc,’ (pop-up outdoor dinners) held in many cities around the country,” she adds.
A Night in Suffrage White is just one of many activities and events held at the API. March through November there are Second Saturday tours each month, noon to 2 p.m. (Next dates are Saturdays, September 14, October 12, and November 9).
A couple of other special dates coming this fall include Paulsdale Uncorked, an early evening of wine and gourmet food pairings, Saturday, September 21; and Designer Handbag Bingo, the evening of Wednesday, November 13.
Visitors are also invited to see API’s ongoing exhibit “Alice Paul: In Pursuit of Ordinary Equality” through self-guided or guided tours, Tuesday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m.
Just minutes off Interstate 295 South (exit 40 to Moorestown), Paulsdale is tucked off of Hooton Road, named for Benjamin Hooton, the architect of the original Greek revival structure, built around 1800.
Paul’s parents bought the house in 1883 and cultivated more than 100 acres of orchards, farm crops, and a small dairy herd. Alice was born in an upstairs bedroom, lived in the house, and attended nearby Moorestown Friends School until she left for Swarthmore College in 1901.
Paul graduated in 1905 with a degree in biology, just one of six college degrees she would earn throughout her lifetime.
The family farmed the land until selling Paulsdale in the 1950s, and it was then divided into two parcels, one of which became a housing development.
(It’s a strange feeling to park there and look into someone’s backyard. Do the current residents know the history and impact of their former neighbor?)
The smaller parcel was a private residence until it was purchased by the Alice Paul Institute in 1990 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991. Paulsdale is also on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places.
This visitor was guided through the home by the very knowledgeable intern Sam Waldman, who pointed out that less than four percent of National Historic Landmarks commemorate the work of a woman.
This places Paulsdale in the small group of historic sites that honor the legacy of significant women in American history. It is also one of the only locations open to the public on the New Jersey Women’s Heritage Trail.
The exterior and interior of the house have been restored to a style Alice Paul would recall, with floor-to-ceiling windows, lofty doorways, hardwood floors, and a handsome, dark, wood banister lining the curved staircase. In the dining room you can see Paul’s splendid bookcase, which holds her childhood pencil and inkwell case.
The house now serves as a museum and home for the API, with the purpose of making sure Paul’s legacy survives by enhancing the knowledge of future generations on the topic of human rights.
Visitors can watch an introductory short film in what was once Paulsdale’s kitchen. There is so much to take in, but some of the highlights of Paul’s life include how she introduced the United States to strategic, non-violent civil disobedience.
She learned these strategies while studying in London and befriending the Pankhurst family, British political activists and advocates of the British suffragette movement.
It was in England where Paul was first arrested and beaten, and where she launched a hunger strike only to be held down and violently force fed, which caused a permanent loss of her sense of smell.
She also met lifelong friend and fellow progressive Lucy Burns while in England. In fact, they met in a London police station after both were arrested during a suffrage demonstration outside Parliament.
In 1917 during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, Paul and Burns founded the National Women’s Party, and both became thorns in the president’s side. Wilson touted himself as a progressive Democrat, but he was not supportive of women’s suffrage.
Some of the most dangerous times in the women’s movement happened during the Wilson Era, which of course was in the midst of World War I as well.
Opponents of women’s equality said suffragettes were anti-American, anti-family, and unpatriotic, especially at a time when America was at war. (Yes, the phrase “family values” was tossed around back then, too.)
Paul was undeterred, however. She put her head down and toiled for suffrage, organizing massive demonstrations and picketing the White House beginning in early 1917.
Unafraid of poking at Wilson, some of the women carried banners addressing the president as “Kaiser Wilson.” Servicemen often agitated and attacked demonstrators while the police looked the other way.
In August, 1917, and for the next few months, Paul and many other picketers were arrested (sometimes charged with obstructing traffic), and given sentences anywhere from six days to six months, in regional prisons and workhouses with appalling conditions.
Those who don’t vote because they’re “too busy” or “they forgot” might want to know that these female elders in the movement were beaten and tortured to secure the right to vote. At least one woman died during the ordeal.
Paul protested the ghastly conditions in the prisons and workhouses by launching a hunger strike. She was again force-fed by the authorities and moved to the psychiatric ward.
Her hunger strike, combined with the continuing demonstrations and attendant press coverage, kept pressure on the Wilson administration. In January, 1918, Wilson announced that women’s suffrage was urgently needed as a “war measure” and strongly urged Congress to pass the legislation.
It took another two years, but at last the 19th Amendment was passed, and Paul went forward to focus on global gender equality, organizing the World Women’s Party to campaign for the cause.
In December, 1923, she and activist/journalist Crystal Eastman wrote the Equal Rights Amendment. Paul worked for 54 years, the rest of her life, for its passage, which is still in limbo.
(Later in life, Paul also played a major role in adding protection for women in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)
The 24-word text of Section One of the proposed ERA is stenciled above the fireplace in the main room of the Paul home and reads:
“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
A corner of the museum is dedicated to information and mementos of the ERA crusade, including photos of advocates such as Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Shirley Chisholm; vintage photos of women marching for the ERA; protest signs; and buttons.
The main room also displays a mural-sized reproduction of Alice Paul toasting the passage of the 19th Amendment with grape juice, as she was a teetotaler. The look on her face is quietly defiant.
After retiring from the NWP in 1972 Paul lived at the Greenleaf Extension Home in Moorestown, enjoying her solitude by reading and contemplating, yet still passionately political, campaigning for the ERA. Apparently Paul would not see visitors unless they could name their local and state political representatives.
Paul had a steadfast, charismatic but quiet personality, skilled at researching and preparing tactics for the early women’s movement, but she was not an extrovert, perhaps one of the reasons she is not as well known as someone like Susan B. Anthony.
At the Alice Paul Institute, which is anticipating the 19th Amendment’s centennial just a year away, the staff and volunteers are more than ready to share their knowledge of Paul’s wisdom and tenacity, and her decades of involvement in women’s rights and social justice.
And they are not alone. Recently Governor Phil Murphy signed a measure into law to designate January 11 as “Alice Paul Day” in New Jersey — one cosponsored by three state assemblywomen.
The Alice Paul Institute at Paulsdale, 128 Hooton Road, Mount Laurel. Free parking, wheelchair accessible. Hours: Tuesday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Self-guided tours, $5. Second Saturday tours, noon to 2 p.m., Saturday September 14, October 12, and November 9. $5.
A Night in Suffrage White, Saturday, August 24, 6 to 8 p.m. at Paulsdale. Tickets cost $20. Ages 12 and older only.
Paulsdale Uncorked, Saturday, September 21, 5 to 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $65. 856-231-1885. www.alicepaul.org.