Today in Feminist History: Suffragists Picket Republican National Convention (June 6, 1920)

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.

June 6, 1920: Alice Paul has been busy since arriving in Chicago, and today announced specific plans for picketing the Republican National Convention, which starts here day after tomorrow.

PHOTO: A banner to be used in the picketing of the Republican Convention. From left to right: Abby Scott Baker, Florence Taylor Marsh, Sue White (with her Tennessee banner), Elsie Hill (carrying a Connecticut banner), and Betty Gram. The tricolor standard is that of the National Woman’s Party.

In keeping with the tradition of the “Silent Sentinels” who picketed President Wilson, there will be no heckling. As before, the messages of the National Woman’s Party will be made quite clear by being written on large, colorful banners.

More than a hundred women, representing 22 States, will be outside the convention hall each day. They will be bearing banners with the names of their States, or slogans intended to pressure party leaders into using their influence to persuade the Republican governors of Connecticut and Vermont to call special sessions of their legislatures so that one of those States can become the 36th and final one needed to ratify the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which bans sex discrimination at the polls nationwide. 

Though the pickets are expecting both parties to put endorsement of the Anthony Amendment into their platforms for the first time this year, mere words will have no effect whatsoever on the protests, because words alone cannot satisfy the Constitutional requirements for ratification. Only the approval of 36 of the 48 State legislatures can do that, and thus far only 35 have given their endorsement since June 4, 1919, when the amendment gained final Congressional approval.

Suffrage headquarters, directly across the street from the Coliseum, where the convention will be held, was crowded, and a beehive of activity today. Even though most of the volunteers have not yet arrived, some meetings had to be held out on the sidewalk due to lack of room. But though this outpouring of enthusiasm is sure to cause many logistical problems, that’s certainly preferable to a sparsely populated office due to apathy, or overconfidence that ratification before the November 2 Presidential election is inevitable.

The picket line will be led by suffrage pioneer Reverend Olympia Brown, age 85, who along with another elder suffragist, Anna Kendall, will be holding a banner inscribed:

“How long must women wait for liberty?”

These were the final public words of the late Inez Milholland Boissevain, who collapsed on stage during a grueling speaking tour of the West in 1916, and never recovered.

The main banner to be used will say:

“We protest against the continued disenfranchisement of women, for which the Republican Party is now responsible. The Republican Party defeated ratification in Delaware. The Republican Party is blocking ratification in Vermont. The Republican Party is blocking ratification in Connecticut. When will the Republican Party stop blocking suffrage?”

Another featured banner notes that women can already vote in some States:

“Republicans: Twenty million unenfranchised women ask you for the vote. Seven million women who can vote for Congress and the President are waiting for your answer to them.” 

Pickets from Connecticut and Vermont will carry banners saying:

“The Republican governors of Connecticut and Vermont refuse to call our legislatures, ready to ratify at a special session. Will the Republican Party allow two men to prevent the enfranchisement of 20,000,000 women?”

Though National Woman’s Party pickets have repeatedly proven themselves willing to go to jail in the past, it is not expected that there will be any repetition here of the arrests that took place in Washington, D.C., during the party’s campaign to get President Wilson to endorse, then work for, the Anthony Amendment. According to one N.W.P. leader, Police Chief Garrity “is a suffragist, even though he is a bachelor.”

There is still hope that the upcoming confrontation can be avoided, and that Republicans can still preserve their reputation as the party of woman suffrage. Last year, Republicans gave the Anthony Amendment 81.8% support in the U.S. Senate and 91.3 percent support in the House, providing the votes needed to put the measure over the two-thirds supermajority required, since Democrats gave it only 54 percent support in the Senate and 59.8 percent support in the House. Since then, 26 of the 35 States which have ratified had Republican majorities in their legislatures. 

If Republican leaders use their influence to get the Republican governor of an unratified State to call an immediate special session of the legislature, and it then provides the 36th and final ratification needed, there will be jubilant, cheering suffragists surrounding the Coliseum instead of silent, solemn pickets. But until that final victory is achieved, every tactic that has been successfully used to get the amendment this far will be employed, and no one will be letting up in their efforts until the Secretary of State certifies that the following words are in the U.S. Constitution as the 19th Amendment:

“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.