Women’s Suffrage and the American Presidency
On the 28th of August 1917, ten Suffragists were arrested for picketing in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. This marked one of the most dramatic points in the American suffragist campaigns. Earlier that year, in January, an ever growing number of women started parading in front of the iconic building and expressing their support for “women’s suffrage” – women’s right to vote. Their campaigns, called the Silent Sentinels, were organized by Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party and were intended as a means of protest against Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. Their vigil started in January 1917 and lasted until June 1919, when the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution passed both the House of Representatives and Senate. During those two and a half years, more than a thousand different women picketed every day and night, except Sunday, and many were arrested during the vigil. Their acts were known to become rather radical at times:
“On the afternoon of February 9, 1919, the eve of the last senatorial vote on suffrage in the Sixty-Fifth Congress, Paul staged this most controversial of rhetorical acts. A column of thirty-six suffragists left the NWP headquarters and marched to the White House, where they burned Wilson in effigy. He could be dealt with in that form only, they told the crowd that quickly gathered, since he had left for Europe in December. In front of the White House, women put the “little figurer about two feet tall, into an urn, and then the crowd erupted. Paul’s description of the uproar over this nonviolent pro-test against Wilson stressed the comic nature of bluecoats versus petticoats, making fun of the imperious police, men who resembled English Redcoats marching magisterially through the colonies, all insignia and injustice.” (Katherine H. Adams, Michael L. Keene, Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign).
The women wanted President Woodrow Wilson to support the proposed Anthony amendment to the Constitution, which would guarantee women the right to vote. They started off standing silently, holding picket signs reading, “Mr. President, what will you do for Woman Suffrage?” and “How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” Riding through the White House gates, his wife by his side, President Wilson customarily tipped his hat to the protestors. Between June and November 1917, 218 protestors from 26 states were arrested and charged with “obstructing sidewalk traffic” outside the White House gates. During that time, messages on the picket signs became more demanding. The women took advantage of the United States’ entry into World War I on April 6. When Russian envoys came through Washington, posters proclaimed that the United States was a democracy in name only. Bystanders erupted in violence. What was the suffragists’ next move? The leader of the National Woman’s Party, Alice Paul, staged a hunger strike in jail after her arrest. Prison doctors had to force-feed her and others. With all the pressure from publicity generated by the White House pickets, the arrests and forced-feedings of women protestors, President Wilson finally lent his support to the suffrage amendment in January 1918. Congress approved it, and on August 18, 1920, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, women achieved the right to vote. That date is now commemorated as Women’s Equality Day. (America’s Library).
Finally, on the 26th of August 1918, the Nineteenth Amendment was proclaimed by the secretary of state as being part of the Constitution of the United States. Women in the United States were enfranchised on an equal basis with men. The text reads as follows:
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Feature Image: The program of the Women’s Suffrage procession, organized by Alice Paul in 1913 in Washington CREDIT: “Official program – Woman suffrage procession, Washington, D.C. March 3, 1913,” 1913. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-12512.