Today in Feminist History: Suffrage Leaders Call Out Sexism in the Justice System

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

December 2, 1913: The treatment of women by the criminal justice system was denounced today by Louise DeKoven Bowen on the fourth day of the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s convention.

A close friend of Jane Addams, and Treasurer of Hull House in Chicago, Bowen pointed out a lack of female police officers and women jurors. Then, she called for reform of the courts and prisons to help women and children caught up in the system: 

From the time of the arrest to the final disposition of her case she is handicapped by being in the charge of and surrounded by men, who naturally cannot be expected to be as sympathetic and understanding as one of her own sex.

In the police station she is at a disadvantage, for such places of detention in most of our large cities are not fit for human habitation. When she appears for her preliminary hearing she is tousled and untidy as a result of being without proper toilet accommodations, and is therefore apt to create an unfavorable impression. In all police stations separate rooms or cells should be provided with plenty of light and air and sleeping and toilet accommodations for women.

It should be noted that though Illinois women recently won the right to vote for President and local offices, they still cannot serve on juries, and although Chicago has had a female police officer, Marie Owens, since 1891, and 10 more were sworn in earlier this year, this is hardly a sufficient presence in a force of 4,000 officers. The rest of the criminal “justice” system is similarly male-dominated.

Louise DeKoven Bowen.

Hopes for a spirit of friendly cooperation between the National American Woman Suffrage Association and President Wilson have suffered a major setback. N.A.W.S.A.’s President, Reverend Anna Howard Shaw, expressed the indignation felt by all convention delegates.

She denounced the President for ignoring woman suffrage in his message to Congress today:

President Wilson referred in his message to the fact that the time has come for an extension of greater social justice, and we women eagerly listened to this. We had hoped that social justice would include some measure of political justice to the women of the country. I feel fully that measure of disappointment which under the circumstances is natural, for the time had come for the President to say a word in our behalf.

No other President has ever had such an opportunity. President Wilson had the opportunity of speaking a word which might ultimately lead to the enfranchisement of a large part of the human family.

I feel that I must make this statement as broad as it is for the reason that we at Budapest last year realized that womankind throughout the world looked to the United States to blaze the way for the extension of universal suffrage in every quarter of the globe. President Wilson has missed the one thing that might have made it possible for him never to have been forgotten. I am saying this on behalf of myself and my fellow officers.

After enthusiastic applause, the convention adopted the following resolution by acclimation:

That it is the sense of this meeting that President Wilson failed to rise to the sublimest of heights of democracy when he failed in his message to Congress today to recommend the freedom of half the citizens of the civilized world.

It had been hoped that the President would be sufficiently astute to jump on the suffrage bandwagon while it’s still very early in his Administration, since our movement has become much more of a political force than it was just a few years ago. But with or without his support, the feeling here at the convention is that the final phase of the campaign has already begun, and will end with the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, and its ban on sex discrimination at polling places nationwide, in the United States Constitution before too many more years pass.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.