The Alice Paul Institute in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, has opened Alice Paul: In Pursuit of Ordinary Equality, the first permanent exhibit at Paulsdale, the activist’s birthplace and childhood home.
The exhibit, which opened on November 14, aims to relay Alice Paul’s story and show how her work for women’s civil rights can inspire visitors to become representatives of positive change in today’s culture. Visitors will learn how changes can be local or widespread, and how activism can take place on the local, state, national, or international spectrums.
The title of the exhibit stems from an Alice Paul statement to a reporter in 1976. When asked why she dedicated so much of her life to women’s rights, Paul replied:
I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems are complicated. But to me there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.
Ordinary Equality aims to inspire visitors to make a change to produce an equal society. While the exhibit celebrates Paul and the women’s rights movement, this idea is not limited to women’s rights. Social equality can include voting on every Election Day, writing to a representative to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, or creating a strategy to help others in schools or communities.
In the future, the core of the exhibit will remain the same, but the coordinators hope to add to it and incorporate a variety of tours.
“While our exhibit focuses on Paul’s life and work,” said Kristina Myers, Director of Programs at the Institute, “we would like to develop a tour or exhibit signage featuring the architectural details of Paulsdale, a 200-year old Victorian stucco-over brick Quaker farmhouse.”
Plans also call for creating interactive opportunities for visitors, especially the younger ones.
Continued Myers, “Right now, we are working on a new lesson plan for our 4th graders who visit for our two-hour Meeting Alice program, who now use the exhibit in an ‘I-Spy’ activity emphasizing Alice Paul’s work and the importance of voting.”
The interactive approach also comes into play in the exhibit, which invites visitors to stand in front of a large photograph of Paul (making a toast the same day women got the right to vote on August 26, 1920) and post their pictures on their social media pages by using the hashtags #AlicePaul, #ThankAlice, #OrdinaryEquality, and #LeadLikeAGirl.
The development of the exhibit began in 2010 with the idea to create a cell-phone tour. At the beginning, the project drew upon items the institute possessed: Alice Paul’s book collection and documents, six of Alice Paul’s college degrees, a late 1800s map of the Paulsdale farm, early 1900s New Jersey women’s suffrage pamphlets, and a collection of photographs. The organizers realized that the story was not complete, and a cell-phone tour would not convey the story without more items to display.
Because the exhibit is in Paulsdale, the organizers had to contend with space issues within the historic home. They needed to keep the exhibit off of the floor because thousands of students visit the home each year for girls’ leadership programs. The exhibit does not feature any furniture or large objects. Instead, Paul’s tale is conveyed through a series of panels that feature photographs as well as quotations and content from Paul’s 92 years of life and work for equality.
The Institute already possessed many of the portraits of Paul, while other pictures were collected from The Library of Congress and the Institute’s sister site, the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum in Washington, D.C., the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party.
In addition, “We were delighted to accept the Amelia R. Fry Collection, a wealth of Alice Paul interviews, photographs, articles and other research collected by Amelia Fry who was Alice Paul’s original biographer,” said Myers. “Dr. Jill Zahniser, who took over Fry’s work after her death and published Alice Paul: Claiming Power [in 2014], visited Paulsdale to organize and access the collection through a grant funded project with the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.”
The Institute also received a wooden pencil box that belonged to Paul and was donated from the Fry family for display in an 1850s glass-front wood bookcase that belonged to the Paul family–the only piece of furniture the Institute has from them. The bookcase was refurbished by the Indian Springs Questers and serves as a reminder of the avid reader Alice Paul once was.
“I’m excited about obtaining Alice Paul’s pencil box,” Myers said. “It is a 11.5 x 4.5 x 5 inch handcrafted wooden box featuring a hinged top with a carving of a book, a quill and large initials ‘AP.’ Although we don’t know much about it, I love to think of Alice having this box throughout her life and carefully arranging her pens and pencils within it. It is symbolic of Paul herself, a brilliant and strategic leader, who started as a shy yet bright school girl at Moorestown Friends School.”
Melissa Callahan, a graduate student in the Public History M.A. program at Rutgers-Camden, is researching the pencil box, and a few other items, to bring the artifacts to life in the exhibit.
“I think it is amazing how the act of holding someone’s personal items, even someone you’ve never met, can give you such a feeling of familiarity, like you and this person had been old friends,” said Callahan. “I think it speaks to the power of using artifacts and primary sources as teaching tools.”
Along with the pencil box, the bookcase will display books from Alice Paul’s collection, which are normally kept in the Alice Paul Archives.
Ultimately, everyone at the Institute hopes that visitors will be inspired by Alice’s philosophies and advance her ideas of equality in big and small ways in their own lives.
Myers said, “A main message of the exhibit will focus on how Paulsdale was a place that would forge and later renew Alice Paul’s belief in equal rights. The exhibit will highlight how Paul developed as an agent of change at Paulsdale.”
Through the Quaker principles of peace, equality and social justice learned at her childhood home, she brought her work to the forefront of both national and international stages in Washington, D.C., England, and Geneva.
“Though her national and international work was often chaotic and sometimes violent, it is in contrast to the peaceful retreat Paul found when she returned to Paulsdale throughout her life,” Myers continued. “Essentially, Paul learned and renewed her commitment to making the world a better place each time she returned to her New Jersey home.”
The Alice Paul Institute will hosted a celebratory event the day the exhibit opened, including a ribbon-cutting ceremony and presentations by Dr. Jill Zahniser and Kristina Myers.
“This project has been a long dream for API and for me personally,” Myers stated. “In my twelve years with the Institute, I’m still very inspired by Alice Paul, and I want to share her story with as many people as possible. She was brave, dedicated, brilliant and her story is moving, engaging and based in the principles of equality, justice, peace and determination that we associate with our American heroes.”
For more information about the exhibit, click here.