Women's Suffrage Movement
On July 14, 1917, Amelia Himes Walker was arrested and jailed for picketing the
White House in the suffrage cause. She was one of 16 women arrested that day and
sentenced to 60 days in the workhouse for "obstructing traffic." During the course
of the year 218 women were arrested and 97 jailed. Alice Paul was among then,
for of course the leaders picketed along with the rank and file. Conditions in
the District Jail and Occoquan (VA) Workhouse were appalling--filthy, crowded,
ill-equipped cells, unventilated in summer and cold in the winter. Nor were the
women treated gently, once installed in these quarters.
The man responsible for the arrests awkwardly enough for him, was President Woodrow
Wilson. It was awkward because, though he had not shown himself a great friend
of suffrage, he did not wish to be known as an enemy. Moreover, he was trying
to wage a war in Europe and tended to regard any distraction as subversive. He
had tried to ignore the pickets at the White House gates. But when they began
to carry banners reading DEMOCRACY SHOULD BEGIN AT HOME, it was more than he could
endure. Alice Paul, the day she was arrested, carried one that said, THE TIME
HAS COME TO CONQUER OR SUBMIT, FOR US THERE CAN BE BUT ONE CHOICE. WE HAVE MADE
IT--the President's own words, apropos of the confrontation with Germany.
Alice Paul, a Quaker, invariably described by her contemporaries as "slight and
frail," was by temperament and training a fighter. Born in 1885 in Moorestown,
NJ, she had been educated at Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania
(she earned her Ph.D. in 1912). In England for part of her studies, she joined
the militant wing of the suffrage movement there. The streets and jails of England
were a rigorous training ground for a young American scholar. She returned to
the United States in 1910 and by the end of 1912 (she was about to 28) was active
in the suffrage movement. She had a very clear idea of what needed to be done.
The so-called Susan B. Anthony Amendment, written to enfranchise women, had languished
in a Congressional committee since 1896, and Alice Paul was determined to revive
it. How would she do so? Her plan was simple, systematic, and legal. She would
bring political pressure to bear on senators and representatives who had opposed
suffrage or done nothing for it. And she would persuade the president to make
From the 1890s until about 1910, the American suffrage movement had fallen on
bad times - its old leadership dying out, and many powerful interests allied against
it. But it had already begun to wake up again when Alice Paul came back from England.
For one thing, new leaders (in particular Carrie Chapman Catt in the ponderously
named National American Woman Suffrage Association), were asserting themselves.
Mrs. Catt was a practical, hardworking moderate who knew how to manage a national
organization and believed in maintaining a sensible but ladylike identity for
the suffrage movement. Her goal was the state-by-state passage of referendums
favorable to suffrage, so that Congress would eventually be forced to debate the
Though the passage of this amendment was the desire of both their hearts, Carrie
Chapman Catt and Alice Paul were not destined to be friends or even colleagues.
Mrs. Catt wanted to bring pressure to bear on Congress from the grassroots upward.
Alice Paul wanted to start at the top. She worked, at first, as a loyal member
of the national party, and was in charge of its lobbying group, the Congressional
Union. In 1914, increasingly impatient with the tactics of the National American,
she led her group out of the national organization, and in 1916 the Congressional
Union took the name National Woman's Party. Its aim was to lobby and demonstrate
in Washington--to let the Democratic Party and President Wilson know that the
suffragists would settle for nothing less than their active support: goals that
the National American strove for as well. But Mrs. Catt was hardly pleased to
see a militant party springing up. With good reason, she feared that any form
of forwardness might alienate Wilson permanently.
This was hardly the first time the American suffrage movement had been riven.
At first it had not been a suffrage movement at all, but a kind of generalized
effort in behalf of women's rights. It arose out of the same soil as abolitionism.
Among the very first American feminists, in fact, were a pair of sisters from
Charleston, SC, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who toured New England in the 1830s
speaking for the abolitionist cause. Naturally it occurred to them that if black
men and women were to be free, why not white women? Blacks, they said, could be
enslaved only if white women were also kept in subjection. The four founders of
the Women's Rights movement--Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony,
and Lucy Stone--were all abolitionists first and, except for Susan B. Anthony,
who remained single, they married prominent abolitionists. All but Mrs. Stanton
also were Quakers--for the Quaker religion was another root of American feminism.
But though the suffrage cause was eventually to engulf the women's movement, it
did not immediately find a voice. In 1840, accompanying her husband to the anti-slavery
convention in London, Mrs. Stanton had been startled to discover that women delegates
were not welcome there. She and Lucretia Mott, who also came, were sent off to
the visitors' galleries and told to keep quiet. Eight years later, in Seneca Falls,
NY--over the scandalized objection of her husband and in spite of the cares of
her rapidly increasing family--Mrs. Stanton, with the help of Mrs. Mott, organized
the first women's rights convention. To their astonishment, 300 people attended.
On the last day of the meeting, Mrs. Stanton produced a bombshell--a resolution
favoring woman suffrage. "Elizabeth," said Lucretia Mott, "Thee will make us ridiculous."
Feminism and abolitionism could not long make common cause--and the end of chattel
slavery was to split the women's movement in half. During the Civil War the women
had forsaken their own cause in favor of the war effort. Yet when the war was
won and the 14th and 15th Amendments were written to guarantee the franchise "regardless
of race, color, or previous condition of servitude," the barrier of sex remained:
the Radical Republicans who favored enfranchisement for blacks were unwilling
to go out on a limb for woman suffrage. Following this betrayal, the women broke
apart. Lucy Stone and her followers in the newly formed Equal Rights Association
decided to support the new amendments--after all, as the leaders of abolition
said, it was "the Negro's hour."
But Mrs. Stanton was embittered: "We are left outside with the lunatics, idiots,
and criminals." In 1869, she and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage
Association, which campaigned for suffrage but also took a radical stance on many
other issues, even going so far as to criticize the institution of marriage. Lucy
Stone and Julia Ward Howe founded the American Woman Suffrage Association, which
was more circumspect. Over the next two decades, however, the differences faded,
and in 1890 the two parties merged.
Though the 1890s were years of discouragement, some gains were nevertheless made.
Wyoming came into the Union as a suffrage state in 1890. Colorado, Utah, and Idaho
followed. By the time Alice Paul was organizing her Congressional Union in 1914,
seven other states (Washington, California, Arizona, Kansas, Illinois, Nevada,
and Montana) had granted full or partial suffrage to women, as had the Alaska
Territory. More important, and thanks in part to the efforts of Susan B. Anthony
and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, suffrage had lost its early "crackpot" image. By 1890,
it was a serious movement, and those who fought suffrage had to fight it seriously--with
money and political strategy. Catcalls and indignant Sunday sermons were no longer
Alice Paul's particular political genius--or folly, according to Carrie Chapman
Catt--was to realize that the president was the man to go after. Even at the conference
tables at Versailles, Wilson was not to meet a more determined antagonist. (It
was not a personal antagonism. "We respected him very much. I always thought he
was a great president," Miss Paul remarked several years ago in an interview with
Robert Gallagher of "American Heritage" magazine.)
On March 3, 1913, the day before Wilson was inaugurated, Miss Paul organized a
suffrage parade--5000 women marching up Washington DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue. The
crowds on the sidewalks were enormous and not always friendly; the District police
were not prepared to handle such numbers. The day ended in a near riot, and the
cavalry had to be called in. The police chief was later fired.
On March 17, Miss Paul led a small delegation to call on the new president. They
asked him to ask Congress to debate the national amendment. Wilson replied--none
too brilliantly--that the suffrage issue had never before been called to his attention
and that he did not know where he stood. Helping him to find out became, for Alice
Paul and her party, a full-time job. They sent one delegation after another, but
he consistently refused to do anything for the national amendment. In 1915, he
did return to his native New Jersey to cast a yea vote in the suffrage referendum
there. In spite of this well-publicized gesture--and heroic efforts on the part
of the suffrage party--the referendum was defeated, as it was that same year in
Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. Since no women were allowed to vote,
the referendums in those states were unlikely to have any positive result. More
than ever, Alice Paul was convinced that the national effort was the only hope.
Still the president did nothing, and in 1917 he refused even to receive any more
suffrage delegations. So the Woman's Party began to picket outside the White House
gates--every day, beginning in January, the "silent sentinels" stood with their
banners. Today it is nothing unusual for men and women bearing placards to march
up and down in front of the Executive Mansion. Unless their numbers are particularly
large, they scarcely rate a line in the evening paper. But in 1917, picketing
was a radical act, and women pickets were regarded as doubly outrageous. Still,
everything went peacefully for a while. On March 4, there were a thousand pickets.
In June the arrests began. At first the women would be rounded up and a few jailed
and then, after two or three days, the president would pardon them. (Amelia Himes
Walker was in such a group.) The traffic obstruction charge was a shaky pretext.
The women were political prisoners, of course, and they knew it.
But the pickets did not go away, even after the arrests began, and the authorities
began taking a hard line. On October 20, Alice Paul was arrested and sentenced
to seven months in the District jail. In what proved to be a tactical error, her
captors decided to make an example of the "ringleader." She and her companions
were treated most roughly indeed. Held in solitary confinement and denied counsel,
Miss Paul was several times forcibly fed. (Force-feeding has little to do with
nutrition; a tube is forced up the nose and down the throat of the victim and
liquid poured through it into the stomach. It is a painful procedure and can cause
illness or even death.) In a final attempt to discredit Paul, she was confined
to the psychopathic ward. On November 14, 30 women in Occoquan Workhouse were
beaten, threatened, and mistreated in what came to be known as the "night of terror."
The subsequent storm of critical publicity was such that the Administration itself
soon called for the release of all suffrage prisoners.
Even discounting the benefits of hindsight, it is amazing that so civilized a
man as Wilson would have ever tolerated the arrests, let alone have allowed the
women to be deprived of counsel, given maximum sentences for an offense they had
not even committed, manhandled, and forcibly fed. It is impossible that he did
not know exactly what was happening in the District jails, but perhaps he did
not want to believe it. As Eleanor Flexner points out somewhat dryly in "Century
of Struggle," her account of the women's rights movement in the United States,
"It is difficult to locate the break in the chain of command which permitted them
[jail conditions] to continue so long after the facts were known to Mr. Wilson."
It is certain that he hated the picketing and thought the women unseemly. On June
22, after the first arrests, he wrote to his daughter that the members of the
Woman's Party "seem bent upon making their cause as obnoxious as possible." On
October 31, having received a letter protesting the treatment of the prisoners
in Occoquan, the president instructed his secretary to look into the matter, in
the following curious terms: "…take this letter to Louis Brownlow and find out
whether he really knows the conditions at Occoquan, letting him see how important
I deem it to see that there is certainly no sufficient foundation for such statements…"
And in November, receiving another letter on the subject of forced feeding, he
told his secretary to reply that "no real harshness of method is being used, these
ladies submitting to the artificial feeding without resistance."
It was hardly the president's most glorious episode, nor Carrie Chapman Catt's
either. For even in the dark days of November, 1917, she refused to come to Alice
Paul's defense, and in fact carefully disassociated herself and her party from
In January 1918, however, the District Court unceremoniously overturned all the
sentences and invalidated all the arrests. On January 10, 1918, the president
declared his support for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment and the next day the House
of Representatives passed it. This was the beginning of another long battle to
get it passed in the Senate (it failed the first time around and had to go back
to the House again) and ratified by the states. But now the possibility was truly
at hand. Whether these great events occurred because of Alice Paul, or in spite
of her, is still debated by historians of the suffrage movement. But, as Flexner
says, "Too much emphasis has been put, subsequently, on the merits of picketing--its
aid or harm in winning votes for women--and too little on the fact that the pickets
were actually among the earliest victims in this country of the abrogation of
civil liberties in wartime."
When Alice Paul got out of jail, she went back to work. One thing she did was
to have commemorative pins made for the women who went to prison for the cause.
Perhaps Wilson, in the end, forgave the Woman's Party for making an aggressive
nuisance of itself. In any case, Alice Paul eventually forgave him. Once converted,
Wilson became a warm advocate of suffrage--and the Woman's Party never ceased
picketing and demonstrating lest Wilson or anyone else forget that the suffragists
meant business. Wilson played one role, Alice Paul another. On August 18, 1920,
the goal was won at last when the legislature of Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment:
"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged
by the United States or by any State on account of sex."
From Shirley Abbott, "The National Museum of American History," (New York: Harry
N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1981) 427-431.
"Elizabeth Cady Stanton," An Excerpt from the Declaration of Sentiments
"Elizabeth Cady Stanton" An Excerpt from the Declaration of Sentiments, from the recording entitled "…But the Women Rose…: Voices of Women in American History," Folkways SFW CD CD F-5538, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 1972. Used by permission.
"He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.
He has compelled her to submit to law in the formation of which she had no voice.
He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men, both natives and foreigners.
Having deprived her of this first right as a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides."