- Historic Sites
“I Was Arrested, Of Course…”
An interview with the famed suffragette, Alice Paul
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
Did you invite President Wilson and his family?
Oh, no. We did send a delegation to him from the meeting, but he wouldn’t receive them. Finally on January 9, 1917, he agreed to meet with women from all over the country who brought Milholland resolutions. The women asked him once more to lend the weight and influence of his great office to the federal amendment, but the President rejected the appeal and continued to insist that he was the follower, not the leader, of his party. The women were quite disappointed when they returned to Cameron House, where we had established our headquarters across Lafayette Square from the White House. That afternoon we made the decision to have a perpetual delegation, six days a week, from ten in the morning until half past five in the evening, around the White House. We began the next day.
And this perpetual delegation, or picketing, continued until the President changed his position?
Yes. Since the President had made it clear that he wouldn’t see any more delegations in his office, we felt that pickets outside the White House would be the best way to remind him of our cause. Every day when he went out for his daily ride, as he drove through our picket line he always took off his hat and bowed to us. We respected him very much. I always thought he was a great President. Years later, when I was in Geneva [Switzerland] working with the World Woman’s Party, I was always so moved when I would walk down to the League of Nations and see the little tribute to Woodrow Wilson.
Do you think that the President’s daughters, Jessie and Margaret, who were strong supporters of the suffrage movement, exerted any pressure on the President?
Well, I think if you live in a home and have two able daughters—the third daughter was younger, and I didn’t know much about what she was doing—it would almost be inevitable that the father would be influenced. Also, I think the first Mrs. Wilson was very sympathetic to us, but we never knew Mrs. Gait, his second wife. Someone told me that she wrote a book recently about her life in the White House in which she spoke in the most derogatory terms about the suffragists.
Do you want to talk about the violence that occurred on the White House picket line?
Not particularly. It is true that after the United States entered the war [April 6, 1917], there was some hostility, and some of the pickets were attacked and had their banners ripped out of their hands. The feeling was—and some of our own members shared this and left the movement—that the cause of suffrage should be abandoned during wartime, that we should work instead for peace. But this was the same argument used during the Civil War, after which they wrote the word “male” into the Constitution. Did you know that “male” appears three times in the Fourteenth Amendment? Well, it does. So we agreed that suffrage came before war. Indeed, if we had universal suffrage throughout the world, we might not even have wars. So we continued picketing the White House, even though we were called traitors and pro-German and all that.
Mrs. Irwin wrote in her book that on one occasion a sailor tried to steal your suffrage sash on the picket line and that you were dragged along the sidewalk and badly cut.
Oh, no. She wrote that? No, that never happened. You know, when people become involved in a glorious cause, there is always a tendency, perhaps, to enlarge on the circumstances, to magnify situations and incidents.
And is there, perhaps, on your part a tendency to be overmodest about your activities?
I wouldn’t know about that. All this seems so long ago and so unimportant now, I don’t think you should be taking your precious lifetime over it. I try always, you know, to vanquish the past and try to be a new person.
But it is true, isn’t it, that you were arrested outside the White House on October 20, 1917, and sentenced to seven months in the District of Columbia jail?
And that when you were taken to the cell-block where the other suffragists were being held, you were so appalled by the state air that you broke a window with a volume of Robert Browning’s poetry you had brought along to read?
No. I think Florence Boeckel, our publicity girl, invented that business about the volume of Browning’s poetry. What I actually broke the window with was a bowl I found in my cell.
Was this the reason you were transferred to solitary confinement in the jail’s psychopathic ward?
I think the government’s strategy was to discredit me. That the other leaders of the Woman’s Party would say, well, we had better sort of disown this crazy person. But they didn’t.
During the next three or four weeks you maintained your hunger strike. Was this the second or third time you underwent forcible feeding?
Probably, but I’m not sure how many times.
Is this done with liquids poured through a tube put down through your mouth?
I think it was through the nose, if I remember right. And they didn’t use the soft tubing that is available today.
While you were held in solitary confinement your own lawyer, Dudley Field Malone, could not get in to see you. And yet one day David Lawrence, the journalist, came in to interview you. How do you explain this?