It began in the West. After Wyoming Territory granted women suffrage, other western territories and states followed suit.
In California, the successful 1911 campaign involved billboards, speeches by men and women, and spectacles. Women rode in a hot-air balloon above a Los Angeles park and dropped suffragist flyers and symbolic sunflowers.
In 1915, three women drove a car from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco to Congress and President Wilson. They brought a petition for a federal amendment. Newspapers were notified in advance of appearances, rallies, and interviews in forty-eight cities along their route. Readers everywhere followed the story with surprise; roads were primitive and the ladies had no man with them to drive and change tires. This event was planned by Dr. Alice Paul.
While studying overseas, Paul had joined the British suffrage movement and learned much more extreme tactics, even ways to protest while in jail. Paul met fellow American suffragist Lucy Burns while both were political prisoners in England.
Paul returned to the States, earned a Ph.D., and took a position with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Paul asked the much older leaders to send her and Burns to Washington, D.C., where, in the eyes of NAWSA, they gradually went rogue.
Like NAWSA, the anti-suffrage movement was also large and well-organized, with mostly women activists. Both sexes feared a social revolution and the breakdown of family values. President Wilson said to an old friend, Nancy Saunders Toy, “Suffrage for women will make absolutely no change in politics — it is the home that will be disastrously affected. Somebody has to make the home and who is going to do it if the women don’t?”
Suffragists were elated when Wilson announced that, as a private citizen of New Jersey, he would vote for women’s enfranchisement in that state’s election. To him, this was an issue to be settled by each state, not an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Wilson’s endorsement was emblazoned on signs in suffrage parades. Ten thousand women marched down Fifth Avenue in the fall of 1915, when enfranchisement was on the ballot in four states with large populations: New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.
Men voted down suffrage in all four. There were still no eastern states with full suffrage, and in the South, anti-suffrage sentiment was high. Some southern white men prevented Black men from voting, sometimes with violence. Black men were lynched. How could white men keep enfranchised Black women away from the polls?
After the defeats in the northeast, the Susan B. Anthony Amendment seemed the best chance for nation-wide women’s enfranchisement, although it had languished in Congress for more than thirty-five years. President Wilson opposed it.
Carrie Chapman Catt, president of NAWSA, presented “The Winning Plan,” which included women lobbying Washington lawmakers. “We do not care a gingersnap about anything but that federal amendment,” Catt said.
Paul had focused on that goal long before. She decided it was necessary to pressure Wilson into persuading lawmakers. On January 10, 1917, members of Paul’s National Woman’s Party (NWP) stunned the country by picketing the White House. Not even men had protested outside the president’s home.
The banner above reads, “Mr. President/ How long must women wait for liberty.” Women took turns as “silent sentinels,” and the cold winter months were just the beginning.
In spring, the United States joined the World War, and the protestors appeared unpatriotic. Crowds gathered almost daily to jeer the suffragists. Catt’s NAWSA members sold war bonds, but Paul’s NWP protesters carried a banner with the first line “Kaiser Wilson” outside his home. Wilson did not want them arrested because they would get even more publicity.
In July, Helena Hill Weed carried a banner that read, “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
She served three days in jail.
Perhaps because of the unruly spectators, picketers began to be arrested in the summer. By August, the crowds of onlookers attacked women suffragists. Ernestine Hara Kettler wrote about the time she and the other three picketers were arrested. The charges were obstructing traffic and loitering. She told the court that the four women marched single-file on the sidewalk. She said that a lot of people stopped and it was they who obstructed traffic. The women were sentenced to thirty days. By the fall, sentences became longer.
Paul got seven months. In prison, she refused food, as she had in England. She was fed by a tube shoved down her throat. The other imprisoned suffragists protested, and in a “Night of Terror,” the women were dragged and beaten. Lucy Burns’ arms were chained to the top of her cell door, and she was left overnight.
Other suffragists joined the hunger strike and were force fed. Rose Winslow wrote that she vomited repeatedly during a single feeding. She fainted when she was not being fed.
Journalist David Lawrence, a close friend of Wilson, visited Paul in prison. Whether he brought a proposal is unclear. A few days later, all the suffragists were released. Hunger strikers were too weak to walk without assistance.
Although progress was made with Wilson and the House, the situation continued into 1918. Here, hunger striker Dora Lewis is physically supported by two women (in hats) upon her release.
The publicity was bad for Wilson’s image here and abroad, and for that of his party. After his turnaround, Wilson saved face by acknowledging the moderate NAWSA — he and Catt corresponded frequently — but not Alice Paul’s NWP. He told the Senate that because women had filled men’s jobs when they went to war, women deserved the vote. The Senate immediately voted down the proposed amendment.
Women had worked for the vote for almost seventy years. Catt and the women of NAWSA did an excellent job, but men could continue to refuse them.
It was Paul who forced the president to act. She said, “If a creditor stands before a man’s house all day long, demanding payment of his bill, the man must either remove the creditor or pay the bill.”
The amendment was almost defeated, even with Wilson’s efforts on the federal and state levels. It barely passed the House and Senate, where approval took more than a year. Three-quarters of the states needed to ratify it, and its last hope was the Tennessee legislature.
A preliminary vote indicated the Tennessee lawmakers were tied on ratification. A tie meant the proposed amendment would die. Were it not for twenty-four-year-old Senator Harry Burn changing his vote, at the request of his mother, on August 18, 1920, and Dr. Alice Paul and her “silent sentinels,” some American women might not be able to vote today.
Berg, A. Scott. Wilson. New York: Berkley Books, 2013.
Hill, Jeff. Defining Moments: Women’s Suffrage. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2006.
American Experience: The Vote. PBS. Prime Video. 2020. Episodes 1-2.
Wheelock, Martha. California Women Win the Vote (DVD). Wild West Women. <www.wildwestwomen.org>. 2011.
Library of Congress. “Women Fight for the Vote.” <https://www.loc.gov/exhibitions/women-fight-for-the-vote/about-this-exhibition/confrontations-sacrifice-and-the-struggle-for-democracy-1916-1917/surviving-prison-and-protecting-civil-liberties/all-join-me-in-much-love-very-very-much/>
Edmonston, Washington, D.C. Miss Alice Paul, New Jersey, National Chairman, Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage; Member, Ex-Officio, National Executive Committee, Woman’s Party. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/mnwp000146/>.
Carrie Chapman Catt. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/rbcmiller002725/>.
Harris & Ewing, Washington, D.C. Penn[sylvania] on the Picket Line — 1917. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/mnwp000212/>.
Helena Hill Weed, Norwalk, Conn. Serving 3 day sentence in D.C. prison for carrying banner, “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/mnwp000060/>.
Kate Heffelfinger after her release from Occoquan Prison. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/mnwp000298/>.
[Mrs.] Lawrence Lewis [Dora Lewis] of Philadelphia on release from jail after five [d]ays of hunger striking. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/mnwp000229/>. [Cropped for this use.]