1919: Placards at the White House: Fed Up with the Inaction of Conservative Suffragists, Alice Paul Decided on the Highly Unorthodox Strategy of Pressuring the President

By Baker, Jean H. | American Heritage, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

1919: Placards at the White House: Fed Up with the Inaction of Conservative Suffragists, Alice Paul Decided on the Highly Unorthodox Strategy of Pressuring the President


Baker, Jean H., American Heritage


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BY NEW YEAR'S DAY 1917, Alice Paul, leader and founder of the National Woman's Party, had made up her mind. Ever since coming home from studying abroad in 1910, the University of Pennsylvania in political science had observed the ineffective American women's suffrage movement with increasing impatience. She believed that for women to gain the vote--no matter how radical such a step might seem, no matter the reaction of conservative suffrage organizations--her dedicated followers in the Woman's Party must picket the White House.

It was indeed a radical plan: no group of protesters had ever so defiantly challenged an American president. But Paul believed that such a confrontation was necessary to force Woodrow Wilson to endorse a change in the Constitution. He had assiduously avoided the suffragists' issue and gone on record that women must "supplement a man's life" in the home. Paul knew that only the president's support could push the Susan B. Anthony amendment out of the congressional committees where it had languished since 1876 and might stay forever.

On January 11, 1917, the first militants took up their positions around the White House, where they stayed from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week, ignoring rain, snow, and sleet. Their placards, mounted on three-foot wooden boards, were clear enough: "Mr. Wilson: You promise democracy for the World and Half the Population of the United States cannot vote. America is not a democracy." In the spring the president graciously nodded and tipped his hat as he was driven through the north gates for his afternoon round of golf. As the picketing continued, his affability grew strained.

Six months later this embarrassing conflict escalated when Wilson authorized the suffragists' arrest for obstructing traffic. At least 60 middle-class women chose jail instead of paying a fine. In October police arrested Paul for the third time. She received a seven-month sentence at Virginia's Occoquan Workhouse. Denied legal counsel, she demanded political prisoner status, and was thrown into a "punishment cell," barely escaping institutionalization at St. Elizabeths Hospital, where she could have been detained indefinitely as a mental patient. When she began a hunger strike, Paul was force-fed through a rubber tube pushed up a nostril. Soon word of the brutality leaked to the press. Under mounting public pressure, Wilson pardoned the jailed suffragists.

By early 1918 he had further capitulated, making a special address to the Senate that called for support of the suffrage amendment as a reward for women's war service, not as a natural right of all Americans. …

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