On a cold, blustery January morning in Washington, DC, a dozen otherwise-ordinary women – housewives, secretaries, teachers – left families and comfort zones, defied traditions and customs, and literally changed the world. Before anyone could notice or stop them they had positioned themselves along the gates of the White House, the seat of power for the nation, demonstrating as no women ever had before. While they stood in silent dignity, the placards and banners they carried spoke volumes: “Mr. President, What Will You do for Woman Suffrage?” and “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?”
Picketing the White House was the brain-child of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, leaders of the National Woman’s Party, young suffragists who had grown disillusioned with the tactics of the more conventional National American Woman Suffrage Association, (NAWSA) run by Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Howard Shaw. After almost seventy years of struggle they were no closer to their goal of full enfranchisement for all women in the United States; more drastic action was called for.
The pickets wore vivid sashes of purple, white and gold that brought a splash of color to an otherwise gray landscape. At first the public viewed them with patronizing disdain. They would tire of such antics, it was said. It was cold – they would soon go home to their families and forget the whole thing. President Wilson smiled and waved to them as he passed through the White House gates. But they didn’t tire; the picketing persisted for many months, through the rainy spring, into the heat of summer. The messages on the banners changed, using quotes from the President himself: “We shall fight for the things we have always held nearest our hearts, for Democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government.”
As winter turned to spring and the United States entered World War I, public opinion towards the pickets began to change. Such public demonstration was considered “unpatriotic,” “dangerous,” and “shameless.” Arrests began for such trumped up charges as disturbing the peace and inciting to riot. The antipathy against a group of silent, stalwart women was amazing. Banners were torn from their hands and destroyed; women were carted off to jail where they were stripped of their own clothes and possessions, beaten and force-fed. Refusing to admit guilt, many were confined to the dreaded Occoquan Prison in Virginia, far from family and friends. When their terms were up they emerged to tell tales of being confined in filthy, rat-infested cells, and of continued beatings.
Finally, bowing to pressure, President Wilson instructed the House of Representatives to consider the amendment. Exactly one year to the day from the appearance of the first picket in front of the White House the House voted 274 to 136 to approve it. The Senate followed suit the following year, June 4, 1919, 56 to 25 votes. The amendment then had to be ratified by ¾ of the states; on August 26, 1920 it finally became the law of the land.
Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association (TPSM) is building a national memorial to American suffragists – with a special focus on those imprisoned at Occoquan, VA, who endured harsh conditions and abuse to win voting rights for American women. For more information log onto: http://suffragistmemorial.org
For a collection of original White House banners visit the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington, DC, (formerly the Sewall-Belmont House): http://nationalwomansparty.org
For the first-person account of this amazing story read Jailed for Freedom: American Women Win the Vote, by Doris Stevens.