(This essay is the first in a series on Famous Women. It was originally published by the Newport Daily News on August 29, 2020. )
I am always stunned by the fact that, until one hundred years ago and only after a hard-fought campaign of over 70 years, women in the U.S. did not have the most basic political right in a democracy—the right to vote. Alice Paul played a central role in effecting this dramatic change.
In the election of November, 1916, Woodrow Wilson, not a supporter of women’s suffrage, had won a second term as president. Despite many meetings, speeches, rallies, parades, and other actions, women still did not have the right to vote in national elections. They had made some progress on the state level; by 1914, ten western states (+ Kansas) had given the vote to women in state elections. Illinois had given it in presidential elections. (In Rhode Island, women would win the right to vote in presidential elections in April 1917.)
Led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, women suffragists—people who supported women’s right to vote—of the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage, met in early January 1917, at their new headquarters located near the White House.
Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, told the group: “We have got to bring to the President, day by day, week in, week out, the idea that great numbers of women want to be free, will be free, and want to know what he is going to do about it. We need to have a silent vigil in front of the White House until his inauguration in March.”
On January 10, 1917, a dozen or so women did what no one had ever done before: They picketed the White House. They braved the winter cold, marched to the sidewalk in front of the White House, and stood silently holding signs: “MR. PRESIDENT, WHAT WILL YOU DO FOR WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE?” “HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?” These were the “Silent Sentinels.”
Alice Paul informed the press that the pickets would be there from 10 am to 6 pm, every day except Sundays, until the presidential inauguration.
The impact was immediate and mostly negative, even among suffragists, but this only stiffened Paul’s resolve. The pickets continued day in and day out. In foul weather, the women rotated shifts ever two hours.
In April, the U.S. joined the world at war. This had a positive effect overall on the suffrage campaign. Young men willing to die overseas for liberty made the country more sympathetic to the cause of women’s political rights.
Nonetheless, with the warmer spring weather came occasional violence involving the pickets and also continued embarrassment for the White House. The White House and the police of the district became increasingly frustrated with the turmoil and tried to negotiate with the women. Alice Paul was unmoved. On June 21, 1917, District Superintendent of Police Raymond Pullman told Paul: “If anybody goes out again on the picket line, it will be our duty to arrest them.”
The next day, three suffragists held up a sign with the president’s own words in his war message to Congress: “WE SHALL FIGHT FOR THE THINGS WHICH WE HAVE ALWAYS CARRIED NEAREST OUR HEARTS—FOR DEMOCRACY, FOR THE RIGHT OF THOSE WHO SUBMIT TO AUTHORITY TO HAVE A VOICE IN THEIR GOVERNMENT.”
The police arrested the women and charged them with blocking traffic and unlawful assembly.
After a series of protests and arrests in July, Judge Alexander Mullowney offered those arrested fines or three days in jail. The suffragists chose jail.
With the protests and arrests continuing, the judge increased the punishment to 60 days in the Workhouse in Occoquan, VA, or a $25 fine. Again, the women chose jail. The Workhouse offered harsh living conditions, horrible food, and limited contact with the outside world.
On October 20, 1917, Alice Paul herself was arrested and sentenced to seven months in the district jail. As she left the courtroom, she said: “I am being imprisoned …because I pointed out to the President Wilson the fact that he was obstructing the cause of democracy and justice at home, while Americans fight for it abroad.”
In November she began a hunger strike which led to force-feeding. She was taken to the psychiatric ward, strapped down, and a tube placed up her nose, through which the staff forced raw eggs and milk, three times daily.
More protests, arrests, hunger-strikes, and force-feedings of women followed.
On June 9, 1918, President Wilson finally relented, announcing his support for the 19th Amendment, the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment.” He noted that public sentiment for it had grown and cited America’s standing in the world as a beacon of democracy.
The amendment passed Congress on June 4, 1919, and took effect when the 36th state, Tennessee, ratified it in August 1920. Overnight the voting population of the country doubled. Whether women of color had the ability to vote is another question—and another column.
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.
Alice Paul. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Paul.
Accessed August 24, 2020.
Cassidy, Tina. “The Silent Sentinels: Unyielding Warriors in the Brutal Fight for the 19th Amendment.” National Geographic History, July/August 2020, 58-70.
Davidson, James West et al. Experience America: Interpreting America’s Past. NY: McGraw Hill, 2011.
Editorial Board, The New York Times. “The Milestone and the Myth Called the 19th Amendment.” The New York Times, August 8, 2020.
Stevens, Elizabeth C. “The Struggle for Woman Suffrage in Rhode Island.” http://library.providence.edu/encompass/the-struggle-for-woman-suffrage-in-rhode-island/the-struggle-for-woman-suffrage-in-rhode-island/#:~:text=The%20struggle%20to%20achieve%20women’s,skills%20to%20gain%20the%20vote.
Accessed August 24, 2020.