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Suffragettes Sentenced to Workhouse

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jul 26, 2017

Alice Paul, a Quaker suffragette from Moorestown, N.J., had organized the picketing of the White House beginning in January 1917. Its purpose was to convince President Woodrow Wilson to support the proposed constitutional amendment that would give American women the vote.

Beginning in June, the government suddenly started arresting the pickets for blocking the sidewalk and began issuing small fines. Then on July 14, 16 were arrested, including three from New Jersey. Two days later, to the shock of their supporters, the government cracked down, sentencing the women to 60 days in the dreaded Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia.

Twenty-nine-year-old Doris Stevens was one of the 16. She would later tell of her experiences in Jailed for Freedom.

“Other locked wagons with tiny windows up near the driver now take us, side by side with drunks and disorderlies, prostitutes and thieves, to the Pennsylvania Station. Here we embark for the unknown terrors of the workhouse. … Warden Whittaker is our keeper, thin and old, with a cruel mouth, brutal eyes and a sinister birthmark on his temple. He guards very anxiously his ‘dangerous criminals’ lest they try to leap out of the train to freedom!”

Once at the workhouse, they surrendered all personal property.

“From there we were herded into the ... dining room where we sat dumbly down to a bowl of dirty sour soup. I say dumbly – for now began the rule of silence. Prisoners are punished for speaking to one another at table. They cannot even whisper, much less smile or laugh.

“We taste our soup and crust of bread. We try so hard to eat it for we are tired and hungry, but no one of us is able to get it down. We leave the table hungry and slightly nauseated.”

Most of those convicted were college-educated women from prominent families, including Mrs. J.A. Hopkins, wife of a major New Jersey politician. The couple had recently been Wilson’s dinner guests at the White House. But now, “Each prisoner is obliged to strip naked without even the protection of a sheet, and proceed across what seems endless space, to a shower bath. A large tin bucket stands on the floor and in this is a minute piece of dirty soap, which is offered to us and rejected. We dare not risk the soap used by so many prisoners. Naked, we return from the bath to receive our allotment of coarse, hideous prison clothes, the outer garments of which consist of a bulky mother-hubbard wrapper, of bluish gray ticking and a heavy apron of the same dismal stuff.”

As the women were being processed, supporters were rallying to their cause. Dudley F. Malone had been a friend and confidant of the president since Wilson had run for governor of New Jersey. Malone had been rewarded with the government post of collector of the port of New York. He had been present for the arrest of the 16 and attended their trial, after which he went to the White House to see the president. Malone later told his story.

“I then went to the court clerk’s office and telephoned to President Wilson at the White House, asking him to see me at once. … I began by reminding the President that in the seven years and a half of our personal and political association we had never had a serious difference. … I told Mr. Wilson everything I had witnessed from the time we saw the suffragists arrested in front of the White House to their sentence in the police court. I observed that although we might not agree with the ‘manners’ of picketing, citizens had a right to petition the President or any other official of the government for a redress of grievances.”

The meeting began to get a little tense.

“‘Why do you come to me in this indignant fashion for things which have been done by the police officials of the city of Washington?’ (Wilson asked).

“‘Mr. President,’ I said, ‘the treatment of these women is the result of carefully laid plans made by the District Commissioners of the city of Washington, who were appointed to office by you. Newspaper men of unquestioned information and integrity have told me that the District Commissioners have been in consultation with your private secretary, Mr. Tummulty, and that the Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. McAdoo, sat in at a conference when the policy of these arrests was being determined.’

“The President asserted his ignorance of all this.

“‘Do you mean to tell me,’ he said, ‘that you intend to resign, to repudiate me and my Administration and sacrifice me for your view on this suffrage question?’”

Malone argued to Wilson the importance of having women support the war effort. The president’s reply was “The enfranchisement of women is not at all necessary to a program of democracy and I see nothing in the argument that it is a war measure unless you mean that American women will not loyally support the war unless they are given the vote.”

“‘Mr. President’ I urged, ‘if you, as the leader, will persuade the administration to pass the Federal Amendment you will release from the suffrage fight the energies of thousands of women which will be given with redoubled zeal to the support of your program for international justice.’”

The New York Times of July 19 reported support for the women was growing.

“The Newark branch of the Woman’s Party held a protest meeting yesterday in the Essex Building in Newark. Resolutions were adopted protesting against the arrest in Washington of Mrs. J.A.H. Hopkins and Miss Julia Hurlbut of Morristown, N. J.

“We appeal directly to the President of the United States, that the whole civilized world today and future days will be the court to ultimately adjudicate between him and a group of patriots, no less impelled by their conception of duty, no less devoted to its performance, and no less resolute in both conceiving and performing than were the revolutionists who founded this nation, and the civil war patriots who saved it.”

The same day the Washington Times announced, “President Wilson today pardoned the sixteen women who, on picketing the White House recently for the causes of woman suffrages, were arrested and convicted of unlawful assembly.

“The President was moved to compassion by the plight of the women who, while fully able to pay the $25 imposed on each, preferred sixty days in the District of Columbia workhouse. The argument that some of the women got more than had been bargained for, that they expected only a three-day sentence and not sixty days’ detention, undoubtedly moved Mr. Wilson to intervene.”

Behind the scenes, Wilson told one of the D.C. commissioners, “We have made a fearful blunder, that we never ought to have indulged these women in their desire for arrest and martyrdom, and that he had pardoned them and wanted that to end it.”

In an editorial The New York Times on July 20 supported Wilson.

“President Wilson, whom they most sought to annoy, has taken pity on the sixteen women of the extreme and meagre suffrage who, convicted of unlawful assembly, had been sent to the workhouse for sixty days. … These misguided extremists don’t mind a little sedition. They gayly defy the law, pose as martyrs. Finding that not two or three days of workhouse experience, so delightful to recall, but sixty days, are before them, they send up, or have sent up for them, a pitiful ululation.”

The Times made it clear.   

“The whole episode is absurd. The public has more serious matters to think about, and will gladly forget these unheroic heroines if they will not repeat their offense. If they, or any of them or their imitators, dally with sedition and disturb the peace, they should be punished, and there should be no remission of their penalty. The sight of high-bred women disturbing the peace in pursuit of their petty whim while the nation is at war is deplorable.”

At the White House, Wilson was working on a new strategy. He received a letter on July 20 from Arthur Brisbane, the editor of the Washington Times.

“Mr. (Frank) Noyes of the (Washington) Star has just discussed with me the wisest manner of dealing with the suffragette problem. His desire is that the newspapers, by a pact and agreement refrain from giving the suffragette ladies any publicity. … I told Mr. Noyes that I wanted to do exactly one thing, namely whatever you as representing the person most directly interested might think wise.”

Wilson wrote to his private secretary.

“There is a great deal in what Mr. Brisbane writes about entire silence on the part of the newspapers. … My own suggestion would be that nothing that they do should be featured with headlines or put on the front page but that a bare colorless chronicle of what they do should be all that was printed. That constitutes part of the news but it need not be made interesting reading.”

The Asbury Park Press on the 21st announced, “President Wilson will take no further hand in the cause of the suffragists. He will make no attempt to get a suffrage measure thru congress. This is stated here on the most adequate authority.

“The White House attitude will be that the militants can return to their picketing with their old banners and will not be interfered with so long as there is no disorder or anything seriously objectionable.”

But one woman wouldn’t be silenced. The Trenton Times the same day carried, “It was 5:30 o’clock when Mrs. J.S.H. Hopkins, wife of the New Jersey Progressive and erstwhile prison-reformer and one of the sixteen pardoned from the workhouse by President Wilson on Thursday, emerged from Suff headquarters carrying a yellow banner bearing these words: ‘We ask not pardon for ourselves, but justice for all American women.’”

She had written to Wilson, saying, “As you have not seen fit to tell the public the true reason, I am compelled to resume my peaceful petition for political liberty. If the police arrest me I shall carry the case to the Supreme Court if necessary.”

Some problems just wouldn’t go away.

“She had been standing for about eight minutes when the gates opened and the President and Mrs. Wilson drove through in their automobile. Seeing Mrs. Hopkins in position, the President doffed his hat and smiled. Mrs. Wilson joined in the salute and smiled also.”

Next Week: Draft Day 1917.


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