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Wilson Tries to Work a Deal

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Nov 15, 2017

What had started as a protest to get Woodrow Wilson to support a constitutional amendment to give all women the vote had by November 1917 become a political issue and a distraction to the nation’s war effort. Alice Paul and her supporters were about to go to court attempting to prove the U.S. government was illegally holding them, and subjecting them to “cruel and unusual punishment” for the crime of blocking the sidewalk.

Wilson’s fellow Democrats were becoming uneasy; with an eye on the 1918 election, the stories of the women being mistreated prompted some to contact Wilson.

“Chances for Democratic success in the Congressional elections are being severely hurt by the unhuman treatment of … women.” “Cannot you use your influence to have these women released and the situation cleared up by passage of the federal amendment?”

Wilson sent a memo to his secretary outlining his position.

“I think our present reply ought to be to the effect that no real harshness of method is being used, these ladies submitting to the artificial feeding without resistance; that conditions … are being investigated for the second or third time … but no abuse has as yet been disclosed, there being no extraordinary amount of lying about the thing; and that these ladies cannot in any sense be regarded as political prisoners. We have no political prisoners and could not under the law. They offended against an ordinance of the District (of Columbia) and are undergoing the punishment appropriate in the circumstances.”

Doris Stevens, a Paul supporter  later wrote in her book Jailed for Freedom, “An interesting incident occurred during the latter part of Miss Paul’s imprisonment. Having been cut off entirely from outside communication, she was greatly surprised one night at a later hour to find a newspaper man admitted for an interview with her. Mr. David Lawrence, then generally accepted as the Administration journalist, and one who wrote for the various newspapers throughout the country defending the policies of the Wilson Administration.”

Lawrence would explain his relationship with the president in his book The Private Life of Woodrow Wilson.

“The author had been engaged in Newspaper work for three years when he was appointed the correspondent of the Associated Press at Princeton, New Jersey, serving from 1906 to 1910. … In 1910, the author joined the Washington staff of the Associated Press, and upon the nomination of Mr. Wilson for the Presidency in 1912 was assigned to Sea Girt, New Jersey, to report the candidate’s activities. From that time forward through the campaign and the pre-inauguration period at Bermuda, Trenton and Princeton, the author was writing daily dispatches for the Associated Press, and when Mr. Wilson was inaugurated, was assigned to the White House by The Associated Press to report almost hourly the incidents of that eventful administration.”

Lawrence observed, “Mr. Wilson’s prejudices against woman suffrage were founded partly on his belief that the only women interested in woman suffrage were the aggressive, masculine-like, harsh-voiced type which was all that in his southern tradition a woman should not be. … The principal objection to giving the women the ballot is that they are too logical. A woman’s mind leaps instantly from cause to effect, without any consideration whatever for what lies between. She thinks too directly to be enfranchised en bloc. She would run into all sorts of trouble.

“For instance a woman’s mind works like this: If she were voting and taking an active part in politics as men do, and if she was desperately anxious to accomplish a particular thing she would ignore every obstacle that lay in her path and try to get it by instant, direct action.”

But Wilson appeared to be wearing down: “When I find two of my daughters such ardent suffragists, passionately devoted to the cause … I must concede that some of my prejudices were unreasonable, and that the desire for the ballot cannot be limited to the relatively few agitators. A cause which could enlist the enthusiastic, devoted idealistic support of such ladies must be wholesome.”

Stevens continued on the meeting with Paul, saying, “Mr. Lawrence came, as he said, of his own volition, and not as an emissary from the White House. But in view of his close relation to affairs, his interview is significant as possibly reflecting an Administration attitude at that point in the campaign. … The conversation with Miss Paul revolved first about our fight for the right of political prisoners.”

The conversation began dealing with principles.

“‘The Administration could very easily hire a comfortable house in Washington and detain you all there,’ said Mr. Lawrence, but don’t you see that your demand to be treated as political prisoners is infinitely more difficult to grant than to give you the federal suffrage amendment? If we give you these privileges we shall have to extend them to conscientious objectors and to all prisoners now confined for political opinions. This the Administration cannot do.”

Eventually it went from principles to politics and the offer of the deal.

“Suppose, continued Mr. Lawrence, the Administration should pass the amendment through one house of Congress next session and go to the country in the 1918 elections on that record and if sustained in it, pass it through the other house a year from now. Would you then agree to abandon picketing?”

Would Alice Paul submit to a ruse that would help the Democratic Party hold on to the majority in Congress? According to Stevens, “‘Nothing short of passage of the amendment through Congress will end our agitation,’ Miss Paul quietly answered for the thousandth time’.”

Maude Younger, another Paul supporter, went further.

“He asked if we would be content to have it go through one House this session and wait till the next session for it to pass the other house. Miss Paul said that if the bill did not go through both Houses this session, the Woman’s World Party would not be satisfied.

“Then the man said he believed that the President would not mention Suffrage in his message at the opening of Congress, but would make it known to the leaders of Congress that he wanted it passed and would see that it passed.”

Politics is the art of compromise; when that fails, the parties usually end up in court. So it would be in the case of Alice Paul and the suffrage pickets.

Next Week: The government acts.


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