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Fight for Women’s Suffrage Continues

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jan 16, 2019

From the day former New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as president of the United States, he had engaged in a battle of wills with another New Jersey powerhouse, Alice Paul. The issue was suffrage for women. Paul demanded an amendment to the Constitution enfranchising all women; Wilson favored allowing only the states that wanted women to vote to grant it.

During 1917, Paul supporters had begun picketing the White House. Arrests were made and dozens of women were jailed, which led to hunger strikes and forced feeding, creating a major embarrassment for a government that was fighting a world war to make “the world safe for democracy.”

By early 1918, the amendment had passed in the House of Representatives, but by that summer the Senate, controlled by Wilson’s party, still had not acted. In August, a banner appeared opposite the front gate of the White House that summed up the position of Alice Paul and the National Women’s party.

“We protest against the continued disfranchisement of American women, for which the President of the United States is responsible. … We condemn the President and his party for allowing the obstruction of suffrage in the Senate. … We deplore the weakness of President Wilson in permitting the Senate to line itself with the Prussian Reichstag by denying democracy to the people. … We demand that the President and his party secure the passage of the suffrage amendment through the Senate in the present session.”

In September, the amendment was to be voted on in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Wilson addressed them saying, “Gentlemen of the Senate: The unusual circumstances of a world war in which we stand and are judged in the view not only of our own people and our own consciences but also in the view of all nations and peoples will, I hope, justify in your thought, as it does in mine, the message I have come to bring you. … I regard the concurrence of the Senate in the constitutional Amendment proposing the extension of the Suffrage to women as vitally essential to the successful prosecution of the great war of humanity in which we are engaged. I have come to urge upon you the considerations which have led me to that conclusion … its adoption is, in my judgment, clearly necessary to the successful prosecution of the war and the successful realization of the object for which the war is being fought.”

As the Senate prepared to vote, women packed the gallery prepared to celebrate the victory. But when the vote was tallied, the amendment had failed, because most Democrats hadn’t followed the president’s urging.

One of the suffragettes remembered, “Stunned, as though unable to grasp it, hundreds of women sat there. Then slowly the defeat reached their consciousness, and they began slowly to put on their hats, to gather up their wraps, and to file out of the galleries, some with a dull sense of injustice, some with burning resentment. In the corridors they began to form in groups. Everyone waned to discuss it. But Alice Paul took my arm. ‘Come,’ she said, ‘we must find out about the short-term candidates and go into the election campaign at once.’”

Some of Paul’s supporters believed Wilson was playing politics, saying he supported the amendment while knowing that it would fail.

Paul spent the next weeks making the amendment an issue in the 1918 midterm elections. Experts were shocked when in November, just days before World War I ended in victory, the Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress.

In December as Wilson prepared to leave for Europe, he told the lame-duck Congress, “What shall we say of the women. … Their contribution to the great result is beyond appraisal. They have added a new luster to the annals of American womanhood. … The least tribute we can pay them is to make them the equals of men in political rights as they have proved themselves their equals in every field of practical work they have entered, whether for themselves or for their country. … The details of such a story can never be fully written, but we carry them at our hearts and thank God that we can say that we are the kinsmen of such.”

One of the inner circles of the women’s party, Inez Hayes Irwin, wrote, “Alice Paul spent all day Christmas of 1918 in bed resting. At least, she was resting physically. Mentally… On that day she evolved a new plan. … The original plan was to keep a fire burning in front of the White House till the Susan B. Anthony Amendment was passed. Wood for this bonfire was to be sent from all the States. Whenever the president made a speech in Europe for democracy, that speech was to be burned in the watchfire.”

Doris Stevens, a veteran of the 1917 hunger strikes, remembered, “And so on New Year’s Day, 1919, we light our first watchfire of freedom in the urn dedicated for that purpose. We place it on the sidewalk in a direct line with the President’s front door. The wood comes from a tree in Independence Square, Philadelphia. It burns gaily. Women with banners stand guard over the watchfire. A bell hung in the balcony at headquarters tolls rhythmically the beginning of the watch. … The bell tolls again when the watch is changed. All Washington is reminded hourly that we are at the president’s gate, burning his words. From Washington the news goes to all the world.”

The Detroit Free Press reported the next day, “As announced, the women lighted their ‘watch fire of freedom’ in a large stone urn on the sidewalk before the White House at 4 p.m. In the flames they planned to burn the speeches of the president as they are delivered in Europe. … The fire was to burn until the Senate voted favorably on the suffrage amendment, but it was permitted to burn only about three hours. Early crowds that gathered about the urn, which threw a great glow over the banners held by suffrage sentinels on either side and illuminated the White House grounds, were friendly and from time to time interrupted the women speakers with friendly comment.”

But it wouldn’t last. The Wilmington Journal noted, “The militant suffragists, a crowd of soldiers and civilians and a squad of White House police engaged in two incipient riots early last night. … The Suffragists were roughly handled for a time when a watchfire they had built in front of the White House for the destruction of Mr. Wilson’s speeches was stamped out by the crowd. Four of the women were arrested a few minutes later when they started the blaze anew in a mammoth urn directly across from the White House. Several of the women showed fight before they were loaded into the patrol wagon.”

Alice Paul was one of those arrested. As 1919 began, the world had been made “safe for democracy” … the problem was it didn’t seem to extend to the United States.

Next Week: Talk is cheap.


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