Today in Feminist History: Mistreatment of Peaceful Suffragists (November 13, 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.


Today saw yet another example of the outrageous treatment given to peaceful suffragists, who are picketing President Wilson over his failure to support passage and ratification of the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment while he tirelessly calls for democracy around the rest of world.

A mob attacking a suffrage picket line near the White House gate. A sign near the picket lying on the ground says, “20,000,000 women have no votes in government.” Another says: “Russia is free. But the U.S. is not.” One man is shown saying: “She’s bothering us while we are making the world safe for democracy.” A “White Collar Slave” says: “Look what happened when you got Jeannette Rankin in Congress! She voted against war the very first thing, and now she wants the people to take over the mines and pay real living wages! That shows that woman’s place is in the home!” Many “Votes for Women” placards are shown on the ground. The cartoon’s caption, from Proverbs 29:18, is: “Where there is no vision the people perish.”

First the pickets battled a hostile mob, then were arrested by police who failed to arrest any of their attackers. Tonight all 31 demonstrators are being held in the Washington, D.C. House of Detention after refusing to post bail.

The police arrived late at the scene of the near-riot because they didn’t think there would be a suffrage demonstration today. Instead of the usual jail terms, the protesters had surprisingly been given suspended sentences yesterday for their picketing on the 10th, and knew that Judge Mullowney could recall them to court and jail them at any time if they engaged in further “illegal” activities.

But the pickets would not be deterred from taking up their posts along the fence near the White House gates. They marched from Cameron House, the National Woman’s Party’s headquarters, with colorful suffrage banners held high. Things went calmly for a while, but once the government employees began leaving work, the small audience of passersby turned into a large hostile crowd. A few boys then began stealing and tearing the banners, at which point the situation deteriorated rapidly as adults joined in. Police were called and eventually restored order, but only after taking all the nonviolent protesters into custody and off to jail. They will face Judge Mullowney again tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the ordeals of Alice Paul and Rose Winslow continue in the District Jail. Paul has been there since October 22nd, serving sentences totaling seven months for her part in the picketing, which has been going on since January 10th. She began a hunger strike on November 5th, and has been force-fed three times a day since November 8th. Today she finally got a visit from Dudley Field Malone, the lawyer for all the pickets. It was necessary for him to go to the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia to compel the warden to produce Alice Paul so that he could confer with her. Malone said afterward:

“Miss Paul and Miss Winslow both are very weak and are being force-fed. They are resisting food as a protest against the failure of the Government to treat as political offenders women who are arrested for demanding passage of the Federal suffrage amendment.

I was shocked to find that Miss Paul, because she is the leader of the National Woman’s Party, has been singled out from among the other suffragists and transferred to the psychopathic ward, in spite of her demand first to see her personal physician and her attorney.

Miss Paul is imprisoned in a room in the midst of insane patients, whose shrieks she can hear day and night. For fear she may not hear them, the door of her room has been taken off. One of her windows has been boarded up with heavy wooden shutters, and the other one cannot be opened to let in air, so that most of the air must come from the inside halls of the building. Against her protests, alienists have repeatedly been sent to interview Miss Paul and have even brought with them a stenographer to take down what she says.

I talked with Miss Paul for an hour and a half, and she is more sane than any of the Administration officials who have been responsible for this outrage. I demanded of the warden that this malicious attempt to discredit Miss Paul’s leadership and to reflect on her sanity in placing her in the psychopathic ward, surrounded by maniacs, cease at once, and that she be removed forthwith. If this is not done, I shall appeal to the court for relief from this unspeakable situation.

It is time that the sportsmanship and gallantry of American men and that the humanity and political power of the women voters of the State of New York and the Western States spoke out against this conduct of the Government.”

Though only Alice Paul and Rose Winslow are being force-fed, they are far from being the only suffrage pickets in the District Jail, and the number of imprisoned suffragists may increase dramatically tomorrow. So while today is the one-week anniversary of the suffrage movement’s biggest victory so far––women winning the vote in New York State––our battle nationwide is far from over, and things may get a lot tougher for the “Silent Sentinels” very soon.


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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.