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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Tide Turns


     Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and members of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) continued to pursue suffrage, despite U.S. entry into World War I. They maintained their peaceful picketing of the White House and the U.S. Capitol, but the rhetoric denouncing Wilson’s behavior grew harsher. At the same time, the public sentiment was less tolerant of government criticism during wartime.

     On June 20, 1917, NWP members met Russian envoys with a banner proclaiming the United States was a democracy in name only. An angry mob tore the banner to pieces. The women continued to stand in silent protest. Two days later Lucy Burns and Katherine Morey were arrested for picketing, but were never brought to trial.

     Over the following days and weeks, more protesters were arrested. Because peaceful picketing was not against the law, they were charged with “obstructing traffic” even though they stood quietly near the White House fence and it was the crowd of onlookers who were actually obstructing sidewalk traffic. On June 27, six women were sentenced to three days in District jail after refusing to pay $25 fines for obstructing traffic. They were the first of 168 suffragists to serve prison time for picketing.

      The demonstrators carried a new banner on August 14, referring to the President as “Kaiser Wilson,” comparing him to German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II and accusing Wilson of being a despot over women who lacked a voice in government. An outraged crowd destroyed the banners, attacked the protesters and fired a gunshot at NWP headquarters. The police did little to intervene.

     After three days of brutal attacks by mobs and the police, six women were arrested and sentenced to 60 days in the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. Other NWP members continued their demonstrations and more were arrested.

     In mid-September, Senator Andrieus Aristieus Jones, chair of the Senate Woman Suffrage Committee, visited the Occoquan Workhouse and verified reports of improper treatment of the suffrage prisoners. The next day, his committee reported out the suffrage bill that had been languishing for six months. On September 24, the House of Representatives created a separate Woman Suffrage Committee

     Imprisoned picketer Lucy Burns, led an effort demanding suffragists be treated as political prisoners rather than criminals. She threatened a hunger strike if this demand was not met. A petition was secretly circulated among inmates. They smuggled it out and the demand presented to commissioners of District of Columbia. Every woman who signed the petition was put in solitary confinement.

     On October 20, Alice Paul was arrested. Two days later she was sentenced to seven months in Occoquan Workhouse. This was the longest sentence handed down.

     Paul and Rose Winslow began a hunger strike on November 5, after demands for political prisoner status were rejected. A week later, they were subjected to force-feeding three times a day for next three weeks. Paul was separated from other suffrage prisoners and transferred to psychiatric ward at District jail for “evaluation” in an effort to intimidate and discredit her. William Alanson White, the superintendent of St. Elizabeths (psychiatric) Hospital, interviewed her in a vain attempt to have her committed. White found Paul to be sane and “perfectly calm, yet determined.”

     New York women won the right to vote on November 6, 1917. The state was the first in the East to grant women’s suffrage.

     A large demonstration was held on November 10 to protest the treatment of Paul and the other suffrage prisoners. Thirty-one pickets were arrested, including Burns, who had just been released from prison. The women were sentenced to varying terms in the District Jail. Five days later they were transferred to Occoquan where the superintendent had just returned from a White House meeting of district commissioners.

     He summarily dismissed the suffragists’ demands for political prisoner status. Moments later, guards burst into the holding area. They carried, pushed, threw and beat the women into their cells and told them to remain silent. Lucy Burns started to call role in order to assure that all of the women were alive and conscious. Guards demanded she stop. When she continued, they handcuffed her to the bars of her cell all night with her arms above her head. This became known as the “Night of Terror.” The next day, 16 women went on a hunger strike. Nearly a week later, Occoquan officials begin force-feeding Lucy Burns and Dora Lewis followed later by Elizabeth McShane, as they were considered leaders in the women’s resistance.   

Lucy Burns

     On November 23, Burns and her fellow prisoners were taken to a small Alexandria, Virginia courtroom. The press and public were shocked by the bruised and sickly appearance of the women. Attorneys for the suffragists successfully argued for returning the women to the District Jail. A few days after their return to Washington, D.C., government authorities unconditionally released Paul, Burns, and the rest of the suffragists in response to increasing public pressure and the likelihood that their convictions would be overturned on appeal. In March, 2018, the U.S. federal appeals court declared the arrests and detainment of all White House suffrage pickets was unconstitutional.

     A vote on the suffrage amendment was scheduled in the House of Representatives for January 10, 1918. Under tremendous political pressure, Wilson publicly declared his support for the amendment the night before the vote.  The House passed the measure with 274 ‘yeas’ to 136 “nays.”                               

     Over the next six months, the NWP embarked on a number of efforts to win the vote.  Many former prisoners participated in a speaking tour called the ‘Prison Special,’ while others intensely lobbied the Senate for passage of the amendment. The national committees of both the Democratic and Republican parties endorsed the amendment.

     The Senate scheduled a vote on the suffrage bill for May 10, but opponents forced a postponement to June 27. The opposition threatened a filibuster, again delaying the vote.      

     On August 6, the NWP held a meeting in Lafayette Park, Washington, D.C. Approximately 100 suffragists demonstrated in protest to the Senate’s inaction on suffrage amendment. Forty-eight women were arrested and released on bail, including Paul and Burns. Subsequent demonstrations led to more arrests. The women were tried, convicted and sentenced to the old District workhouse. Again denied political prisoner status, the women began hunger strikes. After a few days, the women were released before completing their sentences.

     Fall brought campaigns for the mid-term elections. The NWP opposed election of all Democratic senators, especially those in New Hampshire and New Jersey, where anti-suffrage candidates were running.

     New Mexico’s Senator Jones again introduced federal woman suffrage amendment in the Senate on September 26. After several days of debate, President Wilson addressed Senate asking for passage of the federal woman suffrage amendment as a war measure.

     On October 1, the Senate defeated the amendment, failing to achieve the required two-thirds majority by two votes. Supporters quickly added it to the Senate calendar for reconsideration.                   

     The NWP began picketing with banners in front of the U.S. Capitol and Senate Office Building on October 7. Demonstrators were arrested daily and released without charges.  Although harassed by unruly crowds, as well as antagonistic police, the pickets continued throughout October and November.

     World War I ended on November 11, 1918. On December 2, President Wilson urged passage of the federal woman suffrage amendment in his annual address to Congress, while police arrested NWP protesters outside.

     On February 10, 1919, the Senate again defeated the federal suffrage amendment, this time by one vote. NWP members met President Wilson in Boston upon his return from Europe on February 24. They carried banners reminding him of his pledge to support the suffrage amendment and lobbied him to pressure the Senate to pass the amendment before the March recess. The Senate failed to do so.

     The House of Representatives again passed the federal woman suffrage amendment on May 21, this time by a vote of 304 yeas to 89 nays, 42 more than the required two-thirds majority.

     On June 4, the Senate finally passed the federal suffrage amendment (19th Amendment) by vote of 56 yeas to 25 nays.

     The NWP launched a campaign to obtain ratification by 36 state legislatures–the required three-fourths majority at that time. With the war now over, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) also worked for the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Throughout the rest of 1919 and early 1920, 35 states ratified the amendment. But then months passed with no additional ratifications.                                 

     On August 9, 1920, Tennessee Governor William Roberts convened a special session of the state legislature to consider ratification. For the next 10 days, suffragists and antisuffragists waged intense lobbying efforts and public relations campaigns. On August 18 Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment. Antisuffragists tried to overturn the vote, but after six days of legal wrangling, the governor signed the certificate of ratification.

     On August 26, the 19th Amendment was signed into law—in time for the 1920 election.

     Millions of women across many generations fought for suffrage. To honor their sacrifices, we must make our voices heard. One hundred years later, the battle for the right to vote continues. Please cast your ballot in the 2020 election.

Ann Markim


  1. Wonderful piece, and a timely reminder of hard a fight those brave women had to fight to give us our rights. Definitely use that right.

    1. I'm so encouraged with all of the early voting that has taken place so far this year. Hopefully, that means our citizens are recognizing the importance of participating in our democracy.

  2. It's surprising how cruelly the suffrage women were treated just because they wanted rights equal to men. It's hard to imagine picketing being illegal or that women were held in solitary confinement for voicing their demands for equal treatment under the law. It makes me wonder, what are men so afraid of?
    A great article, Ann. All the best...

  3. Thanks, Sarah. It seems that throughout U.S. history, people have had to suffer in their fight for equal rights. Hopefully, we'll continue to progress toward equal treatment under the law.