That Time Extremists Marched on the White House for Solidarity
When women’s voting rights protesters outside the White House clashed with counter-protesters on August 28, 1917, the resulting escalation mandated police intervention. The cops showed up. Then ten protesters (from the women’s rights side) went to jail. Once they had the women in jail, the authorities got more than they bargained for.
The 1917 protest in from of the White House challenged President Woodrow Wilson’s broken promises. He’d campaigned with promises for women’s rights, but then denied ever making such promises once in the White House.
The ten women arrested on August 28 didn’t suffer in vain. In time, President Wilson would come around to their requests. Congress too.
Would he have come around without their suffering? That’s impossible to know, but their actions made folks uncomfortable enough to ask why someone would suffer so much for a cause?
Women’s Rights Movement
Suffragettes is the title we hear ascribed to women fighting for women’s rights, but it’s not the right term in this case. The Suffragettes were from the U.K.
In the U.S., there were two main groups fighting for women’s equality in 1917, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and the National Woman’s Party (NWP).
The former was the combination of two other organizations in 1890, resulting in a massive, two-million member organization at one point. This was the group begun by Susan B. Anthony.
The women of the NAWSA were often from families of some affluence, and they were white. Despite protest from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, black women had no place in the NAWSA.
The second group, the NWP, formed in 1916, 26 years after the NAWSA. While both organizations attempted to make change through political lobbies, the NWP developed a reputation for more dramatic activities.
It was the NWP who began to picket the White House in January 1917.
When Alice Paul left the NAWSA, it was because they would not adopt more aggressive practices like those used in the U.K. by the Suffragettes. NAWSA wanted to run a more conservative campaign. They wanted to affect change through civilized discourse, lobbying, and speaking. It was slow, ignorable campaigning.
In 1914, Paul left the NAWSA, forming the Congressional Union for Women’s Suffrage, later the NWP. It was Paul who organized the protests in front of the White House in 1917.
The NWP White House protests started in silence, picketing with large signs aimed at President Wilson. The signs read with messages like, “Mr. President, what will you do for Woman Suffrage?” and “How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?”
They eventually broke their silence, as evidenced by the events and outcomes of the 28th.
Over the course of the time the NWP picketed the White House, over 200 women went to jail. Paul was one of them, arrested on that August day for “obstructing sidewalk traffic.”
Arresting her was the worst thing they could have done; worst for silencing women’s rights, but terrible for Paul too. It forced her to take extreme measures…
The women from the NWP, once in jail, could no longer make a public spectacle. Alice Paul knew there was a way to create problems without violence, without her liberty.
What she learned from her Suffragette sisters was the power of hunger strikes. In jail, Paul refused to eat, which was no threat at first, until the authorities realized she may die in their care.
The public would hear about that. They would demand justice. To remedy this, the authorities force fed Paul and her cohorts like feeding geese to make foie gras.
Seven months later, they released Alice Paul. She shared her experience with the press, as she’d done in this past, horrifying the public about what goes on in jail.
This account from 1910 predates the 1917 events but is the kind of press release given by Paul:
“When the forcible feeding was ordered I was taken from my bed, carried to another room and forced into a chair, bound with sheets and sat upon bodily by a fat murderer, whose duty it was to keep me still. Then the prison doctor, assisted by two woman attendants, placed a rubber tube up my nostrils and pumped liquid food through it into the stomach. Twice a day for a month, from November 1 to December 1, this was done.”
The public and the President had no choice but to listen to the women’s right groups. Two years after the NWP protest at the White House, on June 1919, the U.S. passed Amendment 19.