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Suffragists Fight Onward

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Feb 20, 2019

As February 1919 was drawing to a close, the hopes of New Jersey’s Alice Paul and her National Woman’s Party to amend the Constitution to permit all American women to vote in the 1920 presidential election were fading fast. The Democratic-controlled Senate had failed to pass the amendment in mid-February, and while the Republicans, who had promised to support the amendment, would take control on March 3, the new Congress wouldn’t convene until December. Republican supporters in the Senate realized there wasn’t any hurry to pass the amendment at the present time because the Democrats would claim credit for it.

Doris Stevens, a Paul supporter, summed up the feelings of many of the women.

“For six full years, through three Congresses under President Wilson’s power, the continual Democratic resistance, meandering, delays, deceits had left us still disfranchised. A world war had come and gone during this span of effort. Vast millions had died in pursuit of liberty. A Czar and a Kaiser had been deposed. The Russian people had revolutionized their whole social and economic system. And here in the United States of America we couldn’t even wrest from the leader of democracy and his poor miserable associates the first step toward our political liberty – the passage of an amendment through Congress, submitting the question of democracy to the states!”

The new strategy for the women was to make one last push to get Senate approval, and if that failed, they would try to get Wilson to call a special session of Congress before the scheduled December date set for reconvening.

The Boston Globe of Feb. 28 noted, “A special suffrage car is at present touring the far West spreading the news of the imprisonment of suffragists in Boston. … The following telegram, signed by all of the suffrage prisoners in the jail, was sent last evening to President Wilson at Washington:

‘Mr. President – You said to the United States Senate on Sept. 30th … We shall not only be distrusted, but shall deserve to be distrusted if we do not enfranchise. You, alone, can remove this distrust by securing the one vote needed to pass the suffrage amendment before March 4. … This measure is the message we tried silently to deliver to you on Monday. We repeat it to you now from the Charles-st Jail in Boston.’”

As the March 3 deadline approached, there was no action in the Senate, and President Wilson was scheduled to leave from New York the next day for France and the peace talks. To make matters more complicated, on March 2, The New York Times ran “The expressed expectation of President Wilson to return to private life in 1921does not close the door completely to his re-nomination for a third term, in the opinion of many Democratic National Committee men who heard his utterance at the White House luncheon yesterday. … If circumstances should develop a widespread demand for the re-nomination of the President, he might be induced to accept.”

The same day the Detroit Free Press explained, “The National Woman’s suffrage banner will be the last thing President Wilson will see on the shores of America before sailing for Europe, Wednesday, if the women succeed in plans made today. … Miss Alice Paul, chairman of the party, departed tonight for New York to take charge of the ‘protest’ demonstration that will mark the sailing of the president.

“Among the features of the demonstration will be a line of women at the dock wearing prison garb, another line displaying suffrage banners in front of the Metropolitan opera house, while the president is speaking and a ‘watch fire’ in Madison Square, wherein will be burned all references to democracy made by the president in his historic addresses.”

The Camden New Jersey Post of March 4 set the stage.

“Elaborate precautionary measures have been taken by the police. Before the hall is opened, every corner will be searched. The same steps will be taken on the ferryboat which will carry the President to Hoboken. Only holders of admission tickets will be permitted within a block of the building. Seven hundred uniformed men will guard the route followed.

“Under leadership of Miss Alice Paul, the suffragists are all set for a big demonstration. The approaches to the hall will be picketed, the women carrying banners and signs. Pickets ‘planted’ in the audience will take down the President’s speech and relay it to their waiting sisters outside. Here it will be burned.”

And from New York, “The police laughed at the idea. Chief Inspector Daly said the Suffs would not do anything of the kind. He said no meeting would be held by them or any one else in the vicinity of the Opera House.”

The New York Tribune was there as the two sides collided.

“Captain Hannon, who was in charge, (asked) at one point, ‘What do you want?’ ...  ‘We want to picket the President,’ replied one of the women. ‘If you want to hold a meeting,’ said Captain Hannon, ‘go over to Sixth Avenue.’ ‘We don’t want to hold a meeting’ was the reply. ‘The Federal law guarantees our right to picket.’ ‘No power has even been delegated to the Federal authorities,’ returned Captain Hannon, ‘to allow picketing in this city.’

“The police met the women at first good naturedly. It was a friendly contest of strength in the beginning, but tempers rapidly changed when several hundred men from the side lines threw themselves into the contest.”

Then it got ugly.

“Soldiers and sailors, yelling and laughing, joined the police in pushing back the women. Two soldiers tore the American flag from the grasp of Miss Margaretta Schuyler. Torn yellow and purple suffrage banners fell in the street, and the women struck right and left with the bare wooden poles to which they clung desperately. … The flag and its accompanying banners were torn from the hands of the women and trampled underfoot by soldiers and sailors. … The women fought back desperately. ‘Get back,’ shouted one policeman, grappling with two frenzied women, ‘if you want us to act like bulls, we’ll do it.’”

Doris Stevens was in the thick of the chaos.

“… a beautiful, fragile young girl, was holding fast a silken American flag which she had carried at the head of the procession when a uniformed soldier jumped upon her, twisted her arms until she cried in pain, cursed, struggled until he had torn her flag from its pole, and then broke the pole across her head, exulting in his triumph over his frailer victim.

“When I appealed to the policeman, who was at the moment occupied solely with pounding me on the back, to intercept the soldier in his cruel attack, his only reply was: ‘Oh, he’s helping me.’ He thereupon resumed his beating of me and I cried, ‘Shame, shame! Aren’t you ashamed to beat American women in this brutal way?’ I offered no other resistance. ‘If we are breaking any law, arrest us! Don’t beat us in this cowardly fashion.’”

Six women, including Alice Paul, were arrested, and Stevens escaped.

“The meeting thus broken up, we abandoned a further attempt that night. As our little, bannerless procession filed slowly back to headquarters, hoodlums followed us. The police of course gave us no protection and just as we were entering the door of our own building a rowdy struck me on the side of the head with a heavy banner pole. The blow knocked me senseless against the stone building. My hat was snatched from my head and burned in the street. We entered the building to find that soldiers and sailors had been periodically rushing it in our absence, dragging out bundles of our banners, amounting to many hundreds of dollars, and burning them in the street, without any protest from the police.”

To make matters worse, President Wilson announced he would not call Congress into special session, saying, “It is plainly my present duty to attend the Peace Conference in Paris. It is also my duty to be in close contact with the public business during a session of the Congress. I must make my choice between these two duties, and I confidently hope that the people of the country will think that I am making the right choice. … It is not in the interest of the right conduct of public affairs that I should call the Congress in special session while it is impossible for me to be in Washington, because of a more pressing duty elsewhere, to co-operate with the Houses.”

Like the trampled banners, the hopes of America’s women to vote for president in 1920 seemed crushed. But sometimes strange things can happen.

Next Week: LBI shipwrecks.


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