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Seventy-five Years Ago

June 2024
1min read

How Long Must Women Wait?

On October 20 the suffragist leader Alice Paul was arrested at her station outside the White House, where she had been leading pickets against President Wilson’s resistance to the Nineteenth Amendment since January. After the President had grown tired of meeting with suffragist delegations, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns and their newly formed Congressional Union, an offshoot of the National Woman’s party, had taken up positions outside the White House, six at the west gate and six at the east, some holding signs that read HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY ? The women kept watch six days a week, from 10:00 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. At first it was amicable. “Every day when [the President] went out for his daily ride,” recalled Paul, “as he drove through our picket line he always took off his hat and bowed to us. We respected him very much.” On the day of Wilson’s second inauguration, one thousand women braved a whipping rainstorm to encircle the White House.

After America’s entry into the war the preceding April, tolerance waned for such displays. “The feeling was,” said Paul, “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.” By June the suffragists had become a target for mobs who attacked them as pro-German, ripped their signs, spat at or jostled them, and worse. On June 22, after months as amused onlookers, the police began making daily arrests of the suffragists, who refused to pay their fines and were jailed in a place where, one of the women later recalled, “in the night, prisoners could actually hear the light cell-chairs being removed, so big and strong were the rats.”

Despite their cell conditions the women on the pickets returned again and again to jail. On October 20 Alice Paul was sentenced to seven months and was moved quickly into solitary confinement. There she announced a hunger strike protesting the fact that her comrades weren’t considered political prisoners. After about three weeks she was force-fed through her nose. Then, as mysteriously as the arrests had begun, the women were all released at the end of November.

Wilson at last came out in favor of the suffrage amendment in January of 1918—perhaps worn down not only by the Congressional Union for Woman’s Suffrage but also by his daughters, both adamant for the vote. But he did little to campaign for the amendment on Capitol Hill, and, although it cleared the House, the legislation came up two votes short in the Senate in June 1918. The Woman’s party took up their pickets again, and the D.C. police escorted them routinely back to jail.

The suffrage amendment passed in the spring of 1919, in time for women to vote in the next year’s election.

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