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Wilson Falters on Women’s Suffrage

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jul 19, 2017

While American troops were being sent to France “to make the world safe for democracy,” closer to home in Washington, D.C., a battle in that crusade was being fought. On Bastille Day 1917, New Jersey suffragette Alice Paul had organized the picketing of the White House, demanding President Wilson support the passage of a constitutional amendment giving women the vote. Arrests had been made in the past, but when 16 women, including three from New Jersey, were being hauled away for obstructing a sidewalk, it was clear that the government had run out of patience. The New York Times of July 18 reported on the trial.

“At the trial of the suffragists Judge Mullowny made several threats to clear the courtroom. These were occasioned by outbursts from the women defendants which bordered on contempt of court. The suffragists argued with the court, said the trial was a farce, and charged that the Wilson Administration was behind the prosecution.

“Many women sympathizers attended the trial and were so noisy in their approval of the argument made by the defendants that the bailiffs frequently shouted for order. It was by far the liveliest session the police court has conducted in many a day.”

Doris Stevens, one of the defendants who would later tell her story in Jailed for Freedom, described one of the outbursts.

“Mrs. Florence Bayard Hilles speaks in her own defense … ‘I am a Democrat, and to a Democratic President I went with my appeal. … What a spectacle it must be to the thinking people of this country to see us urged to go to war for democracy in a foreign land, and to see women thrown into prison who plead for that same cause at home.’

“‘I stand here to affirm my innocence of the charge against me. This court has not proven that I obstructed traffic. My presence at the White House gate was under the constitutional right of petitioning the government for freedom or for any other cause. … I shall continue to plead for the political liberty of American women – and especially do I plead to the President, since he is the one person who … can end the struggles of American women to take their proper places in a true democracy.’”

There was also a well-known eyewitness in the court, a friend of President Wilson from his Jersey days. The Washington Times noted, “Dudley Field Malone, collector of the port of New York, who witnessed the demonstration, injected comedy into the trial when he told Judge Mullowny that he, a former police officer, could have dispersed the White House crowd of more than 2,000 persons without any trouble.

“Judge Mullowny squirmed on the bench when Malone made the statement.

“‘You must be from New York,’ said the judge under his breath.

“Just before recess, the judge again asked the New York collector if he could have dispersed the crowd.

“‘Surely,’ said Malone.

“‘Do you want a job on the Washington police force?’ the court queried.

“‘I’ve already got a better job than that, thank, your honor,’ replied the New York customs official.

“Mr. Malone declared a large percentage of the crowd was curious and friendly, and that at no time was there evidence of hostility toward or by any of the banner bearers.”

Speeches or facts didn’t seem to matter as the judge retired to consider his verdict. According to Stevens, “It was reported to us that the judge used the interim to telephone to the District building, where the District Commissioners sit. He returned to pronounce, ‘Sixty days in the workhouse in default of a twenty-five dollar fine.’

“The shock was swift and certain to all the spectators. We would not of course pay the unjust fine imposed, for we were not guilty of any offense.

“The judge attempted persuasion. ‘You had better decide to pay your fines,’ he ventured. And ‘you will not find jail a pleasant place to be.’ It was clear that neither he nor his conferees had imagined women would accept with equanimity so drastic a sentence. It was now their time to be shocked. Here were ‘ladies’ – that was perfectly clear – ‘ladies’ of unusual distinction. Surely they would not face the humiliation of a workhouse sentence which involved not only imprisonment but penal servitude! The Administration was wrong again.

“‘We protest against this unjust sentence and conviction,’ we said, ‘but we prefer the workhouse to the payment of a fine imposed for an offense of which we are not guilty.’ We filed into the ‘pen,’ to join the other prisoners, and wait for the ‘black maria’ to carry us to prison.”

Shocked by the severity of the sentences, Malone at once headed to the White House. According to the New York paper, “President Wilson had granted five minutes for the interview with Collector Malone, of whom he is personally very fond and whom he had honored by appointments as Third Assistant Secretary of State and Collector of Customs for the Port of New York. But the interview lasted forty-five minutes, to the derangement of the President’s regular afternoon motor ride. Mr. Malone arrived at the White House offices at 5:25 o’clock, and did not leave there until 6:10. He was so much perturbed when he left the President that he forgot that a taxicab was waiting for him and walked rapidly to the Shoreham Hotel, after telling the reporters that he had no statement to make in regard to the report of his resignation or anything else.”

But Malone would later explain.

“‘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.’

“All of the people involved were appointees of Wilson and would not have acted on their own. Malone then informed the president he wanted to act as lawyer for the women in their appeal and he would resign his post if need be. Wilson’s reply was ‘Since you feel as you do, I see no reason why you should not become their counsel and take this case up on appeal without resigning from the Administration.’”          

Soon Wilson had another visitor, the husband of one of those convicted. The New York Times of July 18 stated, “After J.A H. Hopkins, Progressive National Committeeman from New Jersey, had conferred with President Wilson on the suffragist situation today, he was impressed with the idea that President Wilson had been deeply shocked at the whole affair, and on learning the circumstances has had only one thought, namely to straighten the matter out. The President asked Mr. Hopkins for a suggestion as to what might be done, and the latter replied that, in view of the seriousness of the situation, the only solution lay in the immediate passage of the Susan B. Anthony amendment.”

Hopkins would later write to members of Congress describing the meeting.

“‘At the outset of our interview,’ Mr. Hopkins wrote, ‘I stated that, while he was the champion of democracy at home, and while we were engaged in a war having for its object the establishment of democracy abroad, practically every act of the Congress and Administration since war was declared had been of an autocratic character. As evidence of this I cited several illustrations.’

“Mr. Hopkins says he told the President that because of this situation the entire country was in a state of unrest. He then told the President, he says, that the arrest of the suffragists was ‘outrageous and farcical.’”

And his reply, “The President stated to me that he had never at any time objected to the pickets, nor had they annoyed him. He accepted my statement, and took it as his own, that the sixteen pickets had not violated any law or any ordinance and were absolutely guiltless. He criticized the Judge’s introduction of the Russian banner into the trial as quite out of place, and volunteered the statement that he, the President, did not consider this banner was either treasonable or seditious.

“He (the President) finally asked me what I thought should be done, and when I told him that a pardon had been suggested he immediately called my attention to the fact that this would only be a temporary measure of relief and did not at all solve the real problem, which he agreed could only be solved by the passage of the Susan B. Anthony amendment.”

But the president’s hands were tied.

“He told me, however, that he could not add to the war program unless he considered additional measures were necessary as war measures, and that if he did so it would be forcing legislation, which, however, he was justified in doing if an emergency existed.”

Mrs. Robert Baker, from the National Women’s party, on the night of the convictions had released a statement that seems to show a president who was looking for a way out … or for someone to blame.

“The President told me personally that the only thing standing in the way of national suffrage now is ‘dynamics’ meaning that there isn’t enough force behind the measure in Congress to put it through.

“We have been to see the President 16 times about suffrage. Fourteen of these times he has had a different reason for opposing the national amendment. The last time he changed front entirely and said he had abandoned all opposition to the measure, but could do nothing because he did not think it could be put through.

“We women want to help the nation, but we can’t do much when women everywhere are chafing under the President’s injustice.”

If the government officials thought that 60 days in the workhouse would silence Alice Paul and the Jersey three, they were mistaken. Wilson now faced a war in Europe and one at home.

Next Week: Free at last!


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