Today in Feminist History: 218 Suffragettes Released from Custody (March 4, 1918)

March 4, 1918: A major victory today for 218 suffragists who were arrested for picketing along the White House fence last year!

PHOTO: Some of the former prisoners are shown here when they held a press conference back on November 12th at National Woman’s Party headquarters wearing replicas of their prison uniforms. In the front row, left to right, are Julia Hurlbut, Nina Samrodin, and Elizabeth Stuyvesant. Standing in the second row are Eunice Dana Brannan, Elizabeth Selden Rogers, Dora Lewis and Allison Turnbull Hopkins. In the back row is Virginia Bovee, who was employed at Occoquan Workhouse and verified the claims of the suffrage prisoners about their treatment, and the atrocious conditions at that infamous institution.

The Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia has just declared all such arrests illegal, and this ruling should therefore void the convictions of the “Silent Sentinel” pickets handed down by the local Police Court. The picketing began on January 10, 1917—the day after a delegation of 300 Votes for Women advocates had an unsatisfactory meeting with President Wilson.

A number of those at the meeting were sufficiently offended by the President’s general attitude, and his unwillingness to either officially endorse the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment, or help the woman suffrage cause despite his personal support for it in principle, that they took the unprecedented step of posting pickets, dubbed “Silent Sentinels” by Harriot Stanton Blatch, outside the White House gates. Though 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 the Sentinels, the White House, passers-by and the police were quite friendly at first, U.S. entry into the war last April 6 sparked hostility from many on the street toward those who would criticize our wartime President. Also, the pickets’ daily reminders of President Wilson’s hypocrisy in praising the virtues of democracy overseas while doing nothing to bring its benefits to the women of America proved quite embarrassing to the Administration, so the atmosphere grew increasingly hostile. 

Arrests began on June 22 of last year, with Lucy Burns and Katherine Morey charged with “blocking traffic” on the sidewalk. The picketing—and arrests—continued with 41 taken into custody on one day alone. Convictions, then sentences from a few days to as long as seven months in the District Jail or infamous Occoquan Workhouse followed for many. 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, with, among other incidents, Burns manacled to the bars of her cell with her arms above her head, and some women thrown into their cells so forcefully that they struck their head on the wall or the metal bed frame.

The suffrage prisoners 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 very late November, the prisoners were released due to growing public outrage over their treatment, and on December 4, eight lawsuits for $50,000 each were filed against the wardens of the Occoquan Workhouse and the District Jail as well as the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, charging assault, illegal detention, and false imprisonment.

Today’s court decision will allow all those wrongly arrested to sue the District over their 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 … Neither is peaceable assembly, under the present statute, unlawful. The statute does not condemn the mere act of assembling on a street, but prohibits assembling or congregating, coupled with doing of the forbidden acts. 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 use his considerable influence on his fellow Democrats to help the Anthony Amendment. He finally endorsed it on January 9—a year to the day after the meeting with suffrage supporters that launched the “Silent Sentinel” campaign.

The next day, the Anthony Amendment got the exact two-thirds majority required for passage by the House. But Wilson still needs to be prodded into helping convert enough Democratic opponents to the cause to win passage by two-thirds of the Senate. The amendment can then be sent to the states for ratification, with approval by 36 of the 48 State legislatures required to become part of the Constitution. 

The Susan B. Anthony Amendment, first introduced into Congress on January 10, 1878, states:

“Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

“Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”


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.