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Defiant Picketers Hold Their Course

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Oct 11, 2017

In October 1917, two New Jersey titans were about to square off in a face-to-face battle of wills that would change the course of American history.

President Woodrow Wilson was in the middle of raising an army to fight in the trenches of France. For him, giving women the right to vote was a minor issue to be left to each state to decide for itself. Alice Paul, a Moorestown Quaker and head of the National Woman’s Party, believed only a constitutional amendment would give all women an equal voice in running the country.

Paul and her supporters had begun picketing the White House in January, trying to win Wilson’s support. At first they were simply ignored and nicknamed “the silent sentinels,” but by June they were gaining more notice and arrests were made for “blocking the sidewalk.” At first only fines were issued, then short jail sentences. By the end of summer, some were receiving six months in the notorious Occoquan, Va., workhouse.

On Aug. 4, Paul was arrested, but her sentencing was postponed. As she awaited her fate, the picketing continued. The New York Sun on Oct. 17 stated, “That the authorities of Washington are determined to suppress suffrage picketing of the White House, cost what it may, was evidenced today when the four women arrested yesterday afternoon for unfurling their banners before the White House were sentenced either to pay a fine of $25 or be locked up in the Occoquan workhouse for six months. True to their principles, the four elected to accept the jail sentence. This is the longest sentence yet meted out to any picket.”

If six months wasn’t enough, the judge was preparing to make things worse.

“Instead of being sent immediately to Occoquan to-day they were remanded to the district jail for a week, being that they will again be called up and sentenced on the former charge, for which they could get an additional six months. The other women arrested October 6, including Miss Alice Paul, head of the Woman’s party, also have been told to appear in court to be sentenced at the same time.

“While members of the Woman’s party stood aghast today at the severity of the sentence there was no evidence that it would deter them from following out their plans.”

Paul immediately issued a statement saying, “The Woman’s Party will not falter in its picketing of the White House because of the six months’ sentence given the last group of pickets, or because of the threatened year. The extreme steps which the administration is taking to stamp out our protest against disfranchisement is lighting the fire of rebellion among women all over the country.

“Our campaign will go on with increased, rather than diminished, vigor until the administration is forced to realize that the demand of American women for self-government is too deep to be stamped out by sentences of any length whatever in the government work-house.”

As Paul pledged to carry on the fight, the women already inside the workhouse were doing their part. The Washington Post of Oct. 20 announced, “Eleven suffrage pickets, confined in the workhouse at Occoquan, face solitary confinement in the District jail unless they rescind their ‘ultimatum’ declaring they will not work because they are ‘political prisoners.' They were notified to that effect by the commissioners last night as a reply to their strike declaration.

“The action of the commissioners is in effect a recommendation of the Board of Charities which considered the militants’ ultimatum of October 16. The board unanimously urged that insubordination should be suppressed and that the imprisoned pickets should be made to obey rules of the workhouse.”

What did the women sentenced to six months inside the workhouse for blocking the sidewalk demand? In part, “As political prisoners, we, the undersigned refuse to work while in prison. We have taken this stand as a matter of principle, after careful consideration, and from it we shall not recede.

“This action is a necessary protest against an unjust sentence. In reminding President Wilson of his pre-election promise toward woman suffrage we were exercising the right of peaceful petition, guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.”

The same day The New York Times noted, “Silent sentinels of the Woman’s Party resumed picketing the White House gates today, and four of them, including Alice Paul, were arrested. They were released on bond for trial Monday.

“The pickets went to the White House at the hour when Government clerks were leaving work and a big crowd had gathered before the police arrived. The only demonstration was the cheering and hissing of the women as they were placed in the patrol wagon.”

At her trial it was determined that Paul had carried a banner bearing a quote from President Wilson that read, “The time has come to conquer or submit; For us there can be but one choice – We have made it.”

Testifying, the arresting police officer stated, “I made my way through the crowd that was surrounding them and told the ladies they were violating the law by standing at the gates and would not they please move on.”

Paul was found guilty and sentenced to six months, plus an extra month for the Oct. 4 arrest. On hearing the verdict, she told reporters as she was being led away, “We are being imprisoned, not because we obstructed traffic, but because we pointed out to the President the fact that he was obstructing the cause of democracy at home, while Americans were fighting for it abroad.”

Paul later remembered, “It was late afternoon when we arrived at the jail. There we found the suffragists who had preceded us, locked in cells.

“The first thing I remember was the distress of the prisoners about the lack of fresh air. Evening was approaching, every window was closed tight. The air in which we would be obliged to sleep was foul. … Instantly a group of men, prison guards appeared; picked me up bodily, threw me into a cell and locked the door.”

Doris Stevens, another protester, wrote in her book Jailed for Freedom, “Miss Paul was held absolutely incommunicado in the prison hospital. No attorney, no member of her family, no friend could see her. With Miss Burns in prison also it became imperative that I consult Miss Paul as to a matter of policy. I was peremptorily refused admission by Warden Zinkhan, so I decided to attempt to communicate with her from below her window. This was before we had established what in prison parlance is known as the ‘grape-vine route.’ The grape-vine route consists of smuggling messages oral or written via a friendly guard or prisoner who has access to the outside world.”

Paul demanded that she be treated as a political prisoner; when this was denied, she decided to take a drastic step. On Nov. 6 she dropped a bombshell; according to the Times, “Alice Paul, National Chairman of the Woman’s Party, now doing a seven months’ sentence in jail here for picketing the White House, has gone on a hunger strike, and tonight she had been in the jail hospital without food for the preceding twenty-four hours, stolidly threatening to starve herself to death.”

The questions now: How far would Paul go to win the vote for women, and what would the government do to stop her?

Next Week: You will eat!



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