March 4, 1918: Vindication and a major victory today for Alice Paul and 217 other women arrested last year for picketing the White House. The Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia has just declared their arrests illegal, and voided all convictions handed down by the local police court.
The picketing began on January 10, 1917, the day after a delegation of 300 suffragists met with President Wilson. Disappointed that the president was unwilling to either officially endorse or help their cause despite professing personal support for it, the suffragists took the unprecedented step of posting pickets outside the White House gates. Choosing not to speak, they made their message clear through large banners emblazoned with questions such as “Mr. President, What Will You Do For Woman Suffrage ?” and “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty ?”
Though relations between these “Silent Sentinels” and the White House, passersby and police were quite friendly at first, U.S. entry into the present war with Germany on April 6 sparked hostility toward the picketers for criticizing our president in time of war. Also, the pickets’ daily reminders of the hypocrisy of President Wilson extolling the virtues of democracy overseas while doing nothing to bring its benefits to the women of America was quite embarrassing to the administration. Arrests began on June 22, with Lucy Burns and Katharine Morey charged with “blocking traffic” on the sidewalk and “unlawful assemblage.” The picketing–and arrests–continued, with 41 taken into custody on one day alone. Those convicted were sentenced up to seven months in the district jail or the infamous Occoquan Workhouse.
Those sent to Occoquan on November 14 were subjected to the most brutality and indignities by the guards. The “Night of Terror” when they arrived was the worst: Burns was manacled to the bars of her cell with her arms above her head, and some women were thrown into their cells so forcefully that they struck their heads on the wall or metal bed frame. They immediately began a hunger strike protesting the denial of “political prisoner” status. Lucy Burns, considered the strike’s “ringleader,” was transferred to the district jail, where she joined Alice Paul in being force-fed three times a day.
Finally, in late November, the prisoners were released due to public outrage over their treatment, and on December 2, eight lawsuits were filed for $50,000 each against the jail, charging assault, illegal detention and false imprisonment. Today’s court decision will allow all 218 to sue the District over their illegal arrests. It also affirms the right to peacefully assemble and protest in the future.
In the words of the Court:
So far as the information enlightens us, the defendants may have assembled for a perfectly lawful purpose, and though to a degree obstructing the sidewalk, not be guilty of any offense. … It would hardly be contended that if the defendants had met on one of the spacious sidewalks of Pennsylvania Avenue to conduct a peaceable conversation, though in a degree inconveniencing pedestrians, they would be guilty under the statute of crowding and obstructing the free use of the walk.
The National Woman’s Party will continue to put pressure on President Wilson to endorse the Susan B. Anthony Amendment for woman suffrage and use his considerable influence on reluctant Democrats to help it gain passage by two-thirds of both chambers of Congress. It can then be sent to the states for ratification.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.