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Suffrage Fight Continues in Washington

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Sep 27, 2017

As the summer of 1917 was ending, President Woodrow Wilson faced a nemesis in the form of Alice Paul, a 32-year-old Quaker woman from Moorestown, N.J. The issue that divided them was giving the vote to women. Wilson claimed he personally supported suffrage but believed it was a local matter for each state to decide and used his influence to delay Paul’s attempt to have a constitutional amendment passed to give all American women the vote. Beginning in January 1917, Paul and her supporters began the first ever picketing of the White House, to convince Wilson they were serious. By summer, Wilson viewed the pickets as a distraction from the war effort and allowed arrests to be made for blocking the sidewalk.

Syndicated columnist Frederick J. Haskin summarized the situation on Sept. 1.

“Over 50 Suffraget pickets have been arrested at the gates of the White House. Seventeen of them have served three-day sentences in the District jail and 22 have been sent to the workhouse at Occoquan. Washington crowds have been provided with a new amusement and a number of visitors have carried away bits of the suffrage banners as souvenirs.

“In all they have called upon the President 17 times. The first time was at the beginning of Mr. Wilson’s administration, and he protested that suffrage was a question of which he knew nothing.”

Wilson had contacted the editors of leading U.S. newspapers, asking them to play down the picketing; this reaction was in The New York Times on Sept. 5.

“Thirteen militants of the Woman’s Party were arrested today when they attempted to ‘picket’ the White House just before President Wilson marched at the head of the parade in honor of the District of Columbia’s quota for the national army.

“The women announced in advance that they had enough volunteers to last all afternoon, but after the police had escorted away several groups of banner bearers the demonstration was abandoned. All the prisoners were released on bond to appear tomorrow.”

The next day, “Eleven of the militants of the National Woman’s Party arrested yesterday while picketing the President’s reviewing stand at the parade of national army men were sentenced today to sixty days in the workhouse. They did not appeal and began serving time.”

On Sept. 7, the issue exploded onto the front pages when the Times reported, “Dudley Field Malone, a close friend and supporter of President Wilson, tendered his resignation of the office of collector of customs for the port of New York today. His reason for quitting the Government service, given in his letter of resignation to the President, is that he is dissatisfied with the treatment by the Administration of the women pickets of the National Woman’s Party. … Mr. Malone – in advocating the re-election of Mr. Wilson gave assurances to the women of the West that they would find the Wilson Administration sympathetic in their fight for the vote. It was the women of the West who sent Mr. Wilson to the White House for a second term.

“Mr. Malone tells the President that he will return to the practice (of) law, but he intends to ‘give all my leisure time to fight as hard for the political freedom of women as I have always fought for your liberal leadership.’”

In an open letter Malone stated, “If the women of the West voted to re-elect you, I promised them I would spend all my energy, at any sacrifice to myself, to get the present Democratic Administration to pass the Federal Suffrage Amendment. But the present policy of the Administration, in permitting splendid American women to be sent to jail in Washington, not for carrying offensive banners, not for picketing, but on the technical charge of obstructing traffic, is a denial even of their constitutional right to petition for, and demand the passage of, the Federal Suffrage Amendment. It therefore now becomes my profound obligation actively to keep my promise to the women of the West.”

For Malone the issue was personal.

“It seems a long seven years, Mr. President, since I first campaigned with you when you were running for Governor of New Jersey. In every circumstance throughout those years I have served you with the most respectful affection and unshadowed devotion. It is no small sacrifice now for me, as a member of your Administration, to sever our political relationship. But I think it is high time that men in this generation, at some cost to themselves, stood up to battle for the national enfranchisement of American women.”

It appeared that the tide was turning against Wilson’s method. On Sept. 9, the Times covered his arch enemy and former president Theodore Roosevelt.

“Theodore Roosevelt opened the 1917 suffrage campaign in New York at a meeting at his home, Sagamore Hill, today, where he addressed about 500 persons, guests of the Colonel and the New York State Woman Suffrage Party. His speech was on the general subject, ‘Suffrage and the War.’”

Roosevelt made his position clear by saying, “On general grounds, I have absolutely no question that suffrage must come, as a matter of right, if we are to continue our democratic experiment of Government.”

The road to suffrage ran into trouble when the Times ran on Sept. 11, “Maine ... declared against suffrage today by a vote of nearly 2 to 1. Late tonight returns had been received from 438 out of 635 of the voting precincts of the State. These gave 17,035 for suffrage and 31,807 against it. The City of Portland stood 1,792 for suffrage and 4,591 against it.

“Among the influences which contributed to the defeat of suffrage in Maine, the most important was the natural conservatism of the state, which hesitates to adopt an experiment in legislation.”

On the 13th, however, Paul’s mission got a boost.

“The Susan B. Anthony resolution for nation-wide woman suffrage by constitutional amendment was favorably reported today by the Senate Suffrage Committee, and will take a place on the calendar for a vote at the session beginning in December.

“Whether the resolution can command the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate and later in the House is a question. President Wilson has refused to put the influence of the administration behind it, although urged to adopt it as a war measure. Suffrage supporters, however, regard getting it out of committee with a favorable report as a forward step, and they welcome the opportunity to get a record vote on it in the open.”

But the war on the pickets continued.

“Six banner-bearers of the Woman’s party were arrested today in front of the White House. They were admitted to bail for trial tomorrow. Before the arrival of the police a sailor tore down a banner carried by one of the women.”

On the 25th, Paul’s drive for a constitutional amendment moved forward again.

“With less than two-thirds of the membership voting, the House late today adopted by 181 to 107 a special rule to create a Committee on Woman Suffrage.

“Opponents of the rule attacked the creation of a new committee as entirely unnecessary, on the ground that the Judiciary Committee was amply able to handle the suffrage question and had planned to report the so-called Susan B. Anthony amendment to the House early next December.”

But it wasn’t easy to oppose the president. “The debate was a warm one from the start to finish. Anti-suffrage members took advantage of the occasion to denounce the women who have picketed the White House for months past, annoying the President when he was struggling with weighty questions of the greatest moment to the nation – problems requiring his full and undivided attention.”

At the bottom of the article, “While the House was voting, four of the Woman’s Party pickets were arrested for displaying banners before the White House. They were released on bond to appear tomorrow.”

On Oct. 7, the Times carried a small article that would change the battle for suffrage and America forever.

“Silent sentinels of the Woman’s Party resumed picketing the White House this afternoon, and eleven were arrested, Miss Alice Paul, one of the leaders, among them.”

Next Week: I am a political prisoner.


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