Today in Feminist History: The National Woman’s Party’s Most Militant Tactic Yet (October 14, 1918)

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.


October 14, 1918: The National Woman’s Party is known for its bold actions, but today’s attempt to briefly occupy the Senate as a colorful protest of that body’s recent rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment was its most militant tactic yet.

National Woman’s Party protesters being arrested by Capitol police earlier today.

As announced day before yesterday:

“Monday noon, upon the convening of the United States Senate, a group of women will form upon the plaza in front of the Capitol and, with no banner other than the American flag at their head and the tricolor of women’s freedom, will march up the Senate steps through the foyer and on to the floor of the Senate.

“They will carry in their hands the speeches on democracy, which have been made by the thirty-four men who voted against democracy for women. In the flame of a torch carried just behind the flag these speeches will be burned. Drawing up their line in front of the presiding officer’s desk, each woman, representing a different group of women, will voice her protest against the injustice done in the cause of liberty by the men who defied Wilson’s appeal for the war measure of woman suffrage. One will be a woman voter from the West, another a working woman representing the millions of women now in industry; others will be young girls representing the women of the future.”

Alice Paul noted the double standard involved in regard to men and women seeking democracy:

“To remedy the wrongs that are done men it is believed right that whole nations should perish, if need be. To remedy the insult that is done woman by the men who lay the scorn and burden of disenfranchisement upon her it is considered wrong to hold a banner of protest on the steps of our Capitol. Where else are women to go for redress of their grievances, if not to the seats of power? If we cannot make our protests seen by our banners, we will make them heard by our voices in the Senate, but we will not let it be said of women that they acquiesced in the defeat of justice and liberty.”

True to their word, the protesters started for the Capitol today, with the American flag and their purple, white and gold National Woman’s Party banners flying. But they were stopped by a squad of Capitol police awaiting them. Their banners were seized, then Alice Paul and 14 others were arrested—in an unnecessarily rough manner—and placed in the guard-room of the Capitol. None of the detainees have been allowed to communicate with anyone, not even their lawyers, or pro-suffrage Senators, and they are being held without any charges being specified.

The words that would have been burned during the occupation of the Senate were those of Senators who lavishly promote democracy worldwide, while voting to withhold it from the women of their own country. Some samples:

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Republican of Massachusetts:

“The work that we are called upon to do when we enter this war is to preserve the principles of human liberty, the principles of democracy, and the light of modern civilization.”

Senator William Borah, Republican of Idaho:

“This is a war that speaks of the majesty of people popularly governed.”

Senator James A. Reed, Democrat of Missouri:

“This is the people’s country. The nearer you get to the people, the nearer you have a just and fair government.”

Though hypocrisy is far from rare in politics, the worst example of it in the current Senate may have been furnished by Senator John Sharp Williams, Democrat of Mississippi. The same man who just 13 days ago introduced a motion—opposed by suffrage groups and rejected by the Senate—which attempted to change the wording of the Anthony Amendment so that it would assure only white women of their right to vote, has said:

“When you undertake to erect a structure of democracy it must be founded upon the four pillars of justice, equality, fraternity and liberty.”

At some point the protesters will presumably be released, and will continue their daily picketing with banners, often inscribed with the words of those who say they favor democracy but vote against it when it comes to women.

Fortunately, some members of the Senate may soon be replaced following midterm elections in November. If two votes are gained, there will be 64 Senators for suffrage and 32 opposed, and the Anthony Amendment will go to the States for ratification after it is re-approved by the new House, then approved for the first time by the new Senate. If this is accomplished early enough, virtually all the State Legislatures will still be in regular session, so ratification can occur quickly, and long before any State’s 1920 election registration deadline.


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About

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.