Today in Feminist History: “We Will Continue to Go to Jail” (July 17, 1917)

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.

July 17, 1917: Totally outrageous sixty-day sentences in Virginia’s infamous Occoquan Workhouse were imposed today on sixteen suffragists for supposedly “obstructing traffic” on the wide Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk as they held up banners while standing along the White House fence on Bastille Day.

Surrounded by spectators, Julia Hurlbut leads the National Woman’s Party picketers toward their posts along the White House fence for the Bastille Day demonstration three days ago. In honor of the day, one of the banners read, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

The severity of the terms surprised everyone in the courtroom, because up until now the “Silent Sentinels” had been subject to no more than three days’ imprisonment, and have served their time in the less odious District Jail.

The trial itself was the now-standard farce, with false charges pressed, and calls for “Order!” barked by the judge whenever spectators cheered statements made in defense of those accused. In order to maintain the pretense of a fair trial, each defendant was allowed to make a statement, however. When addressing the court, Elizabeth Rogers said:

“I know very well we are going to be convicted. I know it by the attitude of the prosecuting attorney, and I can read it in the manner and bearing of the judge. In fact, we have brought our bags ready and packed for jail. Your Honor, you have the wrong party at the bar. The prosecuting attorney has spoken of the primary cause of the alleged disturbance at the avenue. The primary cause is the President of the United States, who has the power to start in motion the machinery which will give women suffrage and who does not do so.”

Judge Alexander Mullowney responded to the immediate and enthusiastic outburst of support for Rogers by saying: “If there is any more applause at all in this court I will order every person except the defendants to be removed. I will not have this for a moment.”

Anne Martin said: “As long as women go to jail for petty offenses to secure freedom for the women of America, then we will continue to go to jail. Wherever efforts for liberty have been persecuted, liberty has in the end prevailed.”

Doris Stevens noted the distinguished ancestry of a number of women on trial and said that signers of the Declaration of Independence, jurists, senators and ambassadors were looking down on the trial of their descendants who were being persecuted simply for seeking a declaration of their rights.

Dudley Field Malone, though a personal friend of President Wilson, is also a dedicated suffragist, and served as the defendants’ legal counsel. It is said – though not confirmed – that he is considering resigning from his appointive post as U.S. Collector of Customs for the Port of New York to protest the Administration’s actions against the picketers.

In court today, Malone attacked the charges brought against his clients by saying that any American citizen has a right to peacefully petition for a redress of grievances. He then noted that there was not a large crowd on July 14th, so a single police officer could easily have controlled the bystanders and kept traffic moving past 16 women standing along the White House fence on the spacious sidewalk if that was what the authorities had wanted. But logical arguments never prevail in a “Kangaroo Court,” and today was no exception. 

Following the predictable verdict, the women were temporarily held in a vacant Jury Room, soon afterward beginning the journey to Occoquan, while Malone went to see his Presidential friend. They spoke from 5:25 until about 6:10 this evening, so President Wilson is well aware of what went on in the courtroom today, and like everyone else in the area, must also be knowledgeable about the atrocious conditions in the Workhouse, so we shall see if he takes any action. If the imposition of lengthy sentences is supposed to discourage picketing, the strategy has already begun to backfire. Seven National Woman’s Party members from New York announced earlier this evening that they would be leaving immediately to augment the ranks of Washington D.C.’s “Silent Sentinels.”

The pickets are protesting President Wilson’s hypocrisy in vigorously promoting democracy around the world, while doing nothing to bring it to millions of female citizens of his own country who live in States where only men may vote. He has steadfastly refused to endorse the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, or use his considerable influence to lobby a Congress controlled by his own Democratic Party to pass it, and send it to the States for ratification. 

The National Woman’s Party (formerly the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage) has been picketing outside the White House gates and along its fence since January 10th. That was the day after a meeting between 300 suffragists and the President in which he claimed that though he supported woman suffrage in principle, as a mere servant of his party, he could not endorse or lobby for the Anthony Amendment until he was officially instructed to do so. He then told those representing our cause to “work harder” for their mutual goal of equal suffrage. The N.W.P. has made it clear that it intends to keep picketing for as long as necessary, regardless of the sentences imposed on its peaceful protesters. 


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.