Questioning Alice Paul’s legacy for Penn GSWS

By Kathleen M. Brown

Over the last few months, as we entered the 100th anniversary year of the ratification of the U.S. women’s suffrage amendment, several of us in the Alice Paul Center have been asked to comment on the significance of that amendment and to provide information about Alice Paul, the namesake of the center. Paul was one of the militant white suffragists credited with bringing the U.S. women’s suffrage campaign to a successful conclusion. She was also the first woman to earn a doctorate in sociology at Penn in 1912. She wrote her dissertation about the split in the women’s rights movement resulting from the racist response of some suffrage leaders (Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony) to the prospect of the 15th Amendment’s granting of suffrage to newly freed black men.

Paul’s bravery as an activist, her militant leadership, her academic achievement at Penn, and her queer life are the reasons why the Center originally took her name when it was founded in 1982. But her political choices to privilege the white female vote in her work as a scholar and an activist are among the many reasons why she is a problematic namesake for the program and center. As I explained to our affiliated faculty in March 2020, this is an issue with which we need to grapple.

It is time to have a serious discussion about changing the name of our Center to reflect our priorities. We have been deliberate in making programming and curricular choices that reject part of Alice Paul’s legacy by focusing our research and teaching energies on LBGTQ studies, Women of Color feminisms, and transnational feminisms. During the truncated Spring 2020 semester, Penn GSWS and the Alice Paul Center chose to mark Women’s History Month, Q Penn, and the suffrage anniversary, not with a retrospective on Paul or women’s suffrage, but with programming that moves us closer to the type of research and curriculum to which we aspire.

As Jennifer Reiss’s essay clearly shows, a critical assessment of Alice Paul’s legacy for our community is not the same as rejecting the legacy of the 19th amendment. We can decide that Alice Paul is not an appropriate namesake for our Center, even as we continue to find promise in the 19th Amendment’s expansion of voting rights.

If the Center were no longer to be named after Alice Paul, who would be your choice to replace her?

Kathleen M. Brown is David Boies Professor of History