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Watchfires Burn in Washington

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jan 23, 2019

As the cold temperatures of January 1919 settled in, an epic showdown between two New Jersey icons was taking place. The state’s former governor, now U.S. president Woodrow Wilson was in France negotiating the treaty to end World War I while at home, a Burlington County woman, Alice Paul, and the National Woman’s Party were doing everything they could think of to get an amendment to the Constitution passed so that all American women could vote for president in 1920.

Wilson’s Democratic Party had blocked the amendment in the Senate in September and would hold control of the chamber until March 1919. While Wilson had publicly stated he supported women voting, many felt he hadn’t done enough to pressure his party’s senators to vote in favor of the amendment. As Wilson toured Europe giving speeches about democracy, Paul and her followers began burning copies of them in front of the White House. Doris Stevens was there.

“Day and night the fire burns. Boys are permitted by the police to scatter it in the street, to break the urn, and to demolish the banner. But each time the women rekindle the fire. A squad of policemen tries to demolish the fire. While the police are engaged at the White House gates, other women go quiet in the dusk to the huge bronze urn in Lafayette Park and light another watchfire. A beautiful blaze leaps into the air from the great urn. The police hasten hither. The burning contents are overturned. Alice Paul refills the urn and kindles a new fire. She is placed under arrest. Suddenly a third blaze is seen in a remote corner of the park. The policemen scramble to that corner. When the watchfires have been continued for four days and four nights, in spite of the attempts by the police to extinguish them, general orders to arrest are sent to the squad of policemen.”

The Miami News reported on Jan. 7, “Six suffragists arrested Saturday and Sunday for building ‘watchfires of freedom’ in front of the White House, were sentenced today. Alice Paul, chairman of the women’s party, Mrs. Lawrence Lewis of Philadelphia and Mrs. Annie Arneil of Wilmington got five days and Mrs. Phoebe Munnecke of Detroit, Mary Dubrow of New Jersey and Julia Emery of Baltimore must serve ten days. The sentences must be served in the district jail with a possibility of transfer to Occoquan work-house. The women will begin a hunger strike at once.”

The paper also observed, “The trial is said to have been marked by inconsistency of all sorts. The women were arrested for breaking a federal regulation concerning the destruction of government property but were sentenced under a District of Columbia regulation against building bonfires between sunset and sunrise. The arrests were made without warning after the fire had been permitted for three days and nights.”

The Washington Times on the same day declared, “The women are locked in cells at the jail. They will not be allowed to receive any visitors or send any mail until they are at the jail five days. ‘They are quiet, but refused to eat breakfast this morning,’ said the superintendent. ‘They will receive that same treatment accorded other women prisoners of the jail. The women will not work, but will be kept in their cells.’

“‘The members of the Woman’s Party will stay on a hunger strike as long as they are kept in prison,’ declared Miss Lucy Burns, who is in charge during Miss Paul’s imprisonment. ‘They will not eat food as a protest against their arrest, which we protest against their arrest which we feel to have been unwarranted and illegal. … We are fearing, however, for the health of the members, as we understand the prison is poorly ventilated. … Officials of the jail told us this morning the members would not be allowed to receive packages, even those containing books. This is not just and proper.’”

The Virginia branch of the woman’s party laid the blame squarely at Wilson’s feet, sending him a cable in France saying, “We protest against the imprisonment of women because they work for democracy, and we demand action from you to secure the passage of the federal suffrage amendment.”

More arrests followed, but the women remained strong. The Washington Times of Jan. 10 printed, “Miss Alice Paul, Mrs. Lawrence of Philadelphia and Mrs. Annie Arneil of Wilmington, Del., completed their five-day jail sentences for burning the European speeches of President Wilson. … All were weak from their hunger strike and were put to bed. Miss Paul reports that none of the eight others who are still in jail has tasted food since imprisoned.”

Eight days later, “Faint and weak from their hunger strike, twenty-two suffragettes of the National Woman’s Party today were conveyed to their headquarters in Jackson Place on stretchers in ambulances from the District jail, where they completed five-day sentences each for building ‘watch fires of freedom’ in Lafayette Park.

“Miss Alice Paul, chairman of the National Woman’s Party, told The Times that Miss Cobb’s condition was serious, as were the conditions of the other suffragettes who had been confined in the prison.

“The released prisoners are being treated by the physicians at the headquarters of the Woman’s Party. When they recover, they plan to return to their homes and hold suffrage demonstrations. … Despite the condition in which the women were taken from the jail this morning,’ said Miss Paul, ‘there will be more watchfire meetings and not only here in Washington, but in other cities until the Senate recognizes woman suffrage.’ …  ‘If the women are ill,’ said the superintendent of the District jail this morning, ‘it is due to their own wishes.’”

The lame-duck Senate wasn’t moved by a few hungry women, and on Jan. 20, the Wilmington Journal reported, “The announcement of Senator Jones, of New Mexico, chairman of the suffrage committee, that woman suffrage has been postponed indefinitely has stung suffragists into determined action.”

Hunger strikes and protests had been ignored; now “A tour of the country in a ‘prison special’ will at once be undertaken to carry the story of the administration’s refusal to act on the amendment to the people. This announcement was made last night by the leaders of the National Woman’s Party.

“The neglect of suffrage at home while the President demands democracy in Europe, and the toleration by the administration of the imprisonment of women asking for enfranchisement will be proclaimed across the nation by women who have served jail sentences for suffrage during the last few months.

“President Wilson’s proposed tour of the country in March to appeal for support of his peace policies will be anticipated by the ‘prison special.’”

Alice Paul voiced her opinion that it was Wilson and the Democrats who were preventing women from voting.

“We hold President Wilson entirely responsible for the passage of the suffrage amendment. … Neither he nor his party is making any determined effort to pass this measure.

“For five years President Wilson declined to endorse federal action; then, one year ago, in response to a country wide agitation, he declared himself for it, and in September, under the pressure of war, spoke to the Senate in its favor. Even while he spoke, he advocated the election to the Senate of men whom he knew opposed this measure. The day after the President’s speech the floor leader of his party and other spokesmen of the administration attacked the resolution with a bitterness equaled only by the ardor of their previous and subsequent support of the President.”

A few days later, 70-year-old Mary Nolan addressed the court as she awaited sentencing for burning a Wilson speech.

“I am guilty if there is any guilt in a demand for freedom. I protest against the action of the President who is depriving American women of freedom. I have been sent to represent my state, Florida, and I am willing to do or suffer anything to bring victory to the long courageous struggle. I have fought this fight many years. I have seen children born to grow to womanhood to fight at my side. I have seen their children grow up to fight with us.”

When applause broke out in the gallery, the judge sentenced 13 women to 48 hours in jail for contempt of court.

Next Week: The martyr vs. the politician.


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