originally posted on MyLeftWing
At the gates of the White House, Alice Paul stood silently with a small group of members of the National Women’s Party. They held signs that asked: “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”
Their efforts were ignored. Then on April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I.
The suffragists’ signs became more pointed. They taunted Wilson, accusing him of being a hypocrite. How could he send American men to die in a war for democracy when he denied voting rights to women at home? The suffragists became an embarrassment to President Wilson.
As the women’s vigil went on, the police stood by as spectators began to assault the picketers, both verbally and physically.
Note – this diary is largely adapted from two sources, cited at the end.
Please read on…
Eventually the police did act – In July of 1917, they began arresting the suffragists on charges of obstructing traffic.
Initially, the charges were dropped. As the protest continued, the women were sentenced to jail terms of just a few days. But the suffragists kept picketing, and their prison sentences grew. Finally, in an effort to break the spirit of the picketers, the police arrested Alice Paul. She was tried and sentenced to 7 months in prison Paul was placed in solitary confinement.
For those of us who tend to think this administration and our society are in uncharted waters – read that last paragraph again. A US citizen sentenced to 7 months – and placed in solitary – for the crime of holding a sign outside the White House. Things ARE bad now – and we have overcome great obsticals and threats to justice and freedom before.
Miss Paul (her preferred name) began a hunger strike, soon others joined her. “It was,” Paul said later, “the strongest weapon left with which to continue… our battle . . .”
In response to the hunger strike, prison doctors put Alice Paul in a psychiatric ward. They threatened to transfer her to an insane asylum. Still, she refused to eat. Afraid that she might die, doctors force fed her. Three times a day for three weeks, they forced a tube down her throat and poured liquids into her stomach. Despite the pain and ilness the force feeding caused, Paul refused to end the hunger strike–or her fight for the vote.
The struggle for women’s suffrage had begun almost 70 years earlier in 1848, in Seneca Falls, NY. Early feminist had been actively involved in the Abolitionist and other social movement – but came to realize that even there they were relegated to drudgery and denied leadership roles. They were largely denied the chance to attend college, to become doctors and lawyers, and to own their own land. If they could win the right to vote, they could use their votes to open the doors of the world to women.
Pioneers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony led the women’s rights movement. In 1878, the first women’s suffrage amendment was presented to Congress, but ignored. The amendment was reintroduced every year for forty years. During that time, it was not brought up for a singe vote.
By the time Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party began their suffrage campaign, the old leaders of the women’s movement were gone. But support for the suffrage amendment had grown. Women were already voting in twelve western states. And in 1916, Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first women elected to Congress. Yet Congress was no closer to passing the suffrage amendment than before and the suffragist movement’s focus has switched to the states.
In 1909 while studying in England, she joined the ranks of the founder of the British suffrage movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, and her daughters Sylvia and Christabel. She participated in a variety of demonstrations and learned their tactics, which included marches, pickets of Parliment, and hunger strikes. While there, Paul was imprisoned three times.
In late 1912, Miss Paul persuaded the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), headquartered in New York City, to appoint her co-chair of its near-defunct Congressional Committee in Washington, DC.. Lucy Burns, an American suffragist she had met in a London police station after they had both been arrested became vice-chairman. Together they would reinvigorate the campaign for a national amendment,
Two months later, [they] staged a suffrage spectacle unequalled in the political annals of the nation’s capital, taking advantage of the festive arrangements and publicity potential surrounding Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. On March 3, 1913, the day before the inauguration, Miss Paul, a master of spectacle and street theater, coordinated a march of some eight thousand college, professional, middle- and working-class women, in costumed marching units, each with its own banners. Leading the parade in flowing white robes, astride a white horse, was lawyer and suffragist Inez Milholland Boissevain, followed by suffrage floats and marching units going down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol past the White House.
By the end of 1916, several organizations coalesced into the National Woman’s Party (NWP) under Alice Paul’s leadership. NWP used a variety of tactics to dramatize the suffrage movement and sway public and political support in its favor. One of the most successful was having suffragist who had been released from jail ride a train called the Prison Special, dressed in prison garb, on a speaking tour throughout the country.
Another was automobile petition drives throughout the West; as suffragist made their way across the country, they stopped in cities and towns along the route and secured the signatures of hundreds of thousands of women and men on suffrage petitions to be delivered to Congress.
When such efforts continued to fall on deaf ears in the Capitol, the NWP became the first group of American citizens to dramatize its political protest by picketing the White House. They were known as Silent Sentinels, and with the rhetoric of Liberty during WWI, they had become an embarrassment to President Wilson.
This brings us back to July 1917. Hundreds of women were arrested on charges of “obstructing sidewalk traffic.” Many, were convicted and sentenced to prison, some, like Miss Paul, multiple times and with increasing terms.
The conditions in which the suffragists were held at the Occoquan Workhouse were appalling. Blankets were rarely washed (one source says once a year). There were open toilets, which could only be flushed from outside the cell by the guard, who might or might not come when called. Women who were on a hunger strike were brutally force-fed.
Doris Stevens, one of the prisoners, wrote in the Suffragist of August 11, 1917:
No woman there will ever forget the shock and the hot resentment that rushed over her when she was told to undress before the entire company. . .We silenced our impulse to resist this indignity, which grew more poignant as each woman nakedly walked across the great vacant space to the doorless shower . . .
In a complaint filed by Lucy Burns concerning conditions at the Workhouse, Ms. Burns stated:
The water they [the suffragists] drink is kept in an open pail, from which it is ladled into a drinking cup. The prisoners frequently dip the drinking cup directly into the pail. The same piece of soap is used for every prisoner. As the prisoners in Occoquan are sometimes afflicted with disease, this practice is appallingly negligent.
November 15, 1917, was the Night of Terror at Occoquan:
Under orders from W. H. Whittaker, superintendent of the Occoquan Workhouse, as many as forty guards with clubs went on a rampage, brutalizing thirty-three jailed suffragists. They beat Lucy Burns, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head, and left her there for the night. They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed, and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate Alice Cosu, who believed Mrs. Lewis to be dead, suffered a heart attack. According to affidavits, other women were grabbed, dragged, beaten, choked, slammed, pinched, twisted, and kicked.
Still the suffragist would not abandon their cause. Alice Paul responded to such treatment with another hunger strike and in October 1917, severely weakened, she was taken by stretcher to the prison hospital.
There she was held incommunicado: no attorney, no member of her family, no friend was allowed to see her. Prison officials threatened her with transfer to the jail’s psychopathic ward and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the Government’s institution for the insane, if she did not break her hunger strike. When she refused, she was taken by stretcher to a cell in the prison’s psychopathic ward and treated like a mental patient. At night, she could not sleep for more than a few minutes at a time because an electric light was aimed at her face once every hour all through the night. She lived in dread of being transferred to St. Elizabeth’s. After a week in the ward, through the intercession of a supporter, Dudley Field Malone, the well-known lawyer and liberal, she was returned to the jail’s hospital. A week later she was released.
Eventually word of this treatment became widely know and the inflamed public opinion. Newspapers carried stories about the jail terms, beatings and forced feedings of the suffragists.
The stories personalized the issues and support for the Suffragist cause quickly grew . On January 9, 1918, WIlson announced his support for suffrage. The next day, the House of Representatives narrowly passed the Susan. B. Anthony Amendment, which would give suffrage to all women citizens. On June 4, 1919, the Senate passed the Amendment by one vote.
With Paul’s leadership of campaigns throughout the country, a little more than a year later, on August 26, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment. That made it officially the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
In November1920 the women of the United States voted in a presidential election for the first time. It had taken seventy-two years beginning with the first Woman’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848 — spanning two centuries, eighteen presidencies, and three wars — for American women to get the right to vote.
As I think about our times – the infamous Pier 57 in NYC, about Camp Casey – I’m frustrated that, in many ways, we’re still close to where we started. (for example – after winning this fight, Miss Paul started working on something called the Equal Rights Amendment…)
but Miss Pauls story reminds me that the challenges we face are neither new nor unique – and she shows us that our efforts are not futile – despite difficulties – we can overcome, we can win victories – we can change the wind.
Photos and text
Please Note – I do lift Paul up as one of my heros – but she is not perfect – one glaring issue is her lack of public support for racial equality. Her private letters show her not to be a bigot, but her, and her groups, public stances are open to criticism. I do not merely dismiss this as a product of the times, but at the same time I don’t think such issues warrant dismissing her role in the victory of 1920. I commend the discussion around these issues in the original MLW diary – in particular shannika’s comments – for some other viewpoints on this. I would echo srliberals comment “Our Heroes are still human. Let us celebrate our Heroes achievements and learn from their mistakes.”
I think we progressives should know more about Alice Paul – so I contribute this diary. I encourage those with other heros to contribute similar diaries. (and I encourage people to check out a person I first heard of in shannika’s comments – Ms. Ida Wells Barnett . Another new hero for me 🙂
Who else should I know about? Who are your heros?