Runyan seeking posthumous honor for Mount Laurel activist

From the hallway of the Alice Paul Institute, in Mount Laurel, U.S. Rep Jon Runyan announces his bill seeking to posthumously award the Congressional Gold Medal to Paul, a tenacious, but obscure, suffragist and women's-rights activist. Story on B1.
From the hallway of the Alice Paul Institute, in Mount Laurel, U.S. Rep Jon Runyan announces his bill seeking to posthumously award the Congressional Gold Medal to Paul, a tenacious, but obscure, suffragist and women's-rights activist. Story on B1. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 28, 2013

George Washington got one. So did Andrew Jackson, the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, and Neil Armstrong.

But 161 years would pass before the Congress of the United States awarded its Gold Medal to a woman.

Now, says U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan (R., N.J.), it's time for Congress to posthumously accord its highest civilian honor to Alice Paul - the unyielding civil rights advocate from Mount Laurel credited with passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.

Calling that "a monumental achievement," in line with what other winners achieved, Runyan told a news conference Tuesday that he had introduced a bill asking Congress to award Paul the Gold Medal.

Also a resident of Mount Laurel, Runyan spoke at the farmhouse on Hooton Road where Paul was born in 1885. She died in 1977 in Moorestown.

Inaugurated during the Revolutionary War, the medal is Congress' "highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions." Although distinct from the military Congressional Medal of Honor, nearly all its recipients were military heroes until the mid-20th century.

Since 1938, the handful of women receiving it have included contralto Marian Anderson, civil rights activist Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King (along with her husband, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), and birth-control advocate Mary Lasker, founder of what is now Planned Parenthood.

Paul "is responsible for changing American society," said Mary Brennan-Taylor, who followed Runyan at the lectern. Brennan-Taylor, vice president for the Young Women's Christian Association of western New York, who met Paul as a teenager, recalled her as "one of the greatest civil rights leader in American history."

Paul's was a decades-long campaign for women's rights that included the first political demonstrations outside the White House, an audacious right-to-vote parade that intentionally collided with Woodrow Wilson's inaugural parade, numerous arrests, a seven-month jail term, and a hunger strike.

In addition to marshaling public and political support for women's suffrage, Paul was author, in 1923, of the original Equal Rights Amendment, and worked to have the landmark Civil Rights of Act of 1964 include language that barred discrimination based on gender.

But for all Paul's accomplishments, Runyan predicted that landing her the medal would prove a "challenge," because her name recognition is low in parts of the country and because passage requires a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Brennan-Taylor said the national YWCA was preparing a letter-writing campaign urging lawmakers to co-sign Runyan's Alice Paul Women's Suffrage Congressional Gold Medal Act.

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) has introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

Menendez has also reintroduced the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that Paul drafted 90 years ago and that has, ever since, been considered by every session of Congress.

Although passed by Congress in 1972, it fell three states short of the required 38 needed for ratification at the end of its seven-year time limit in 1982.

Paul "wept when Congress passed it in 1972," said Lucienne Beard, director of the Alice Paul Institute, housed in her Mount Laurel homestead.

Her companions had first thought she was "weeping for joy," he said, but Paul was grieving. "She recognized that the political climate" was not conducive to its passage.

Paul's birthplace, which the institute acquired in 1889, does not aspire to be a museum, said Beard, gesturing to its spare and modern furnishings. "We could have done the velvet sofas and all that," but instead, the institute conducts programs to teach about Paul and instill in girls and women a sense of her activism and leadership.


Contact David O'Reilly

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