02 Aug Don't Ever Underestimate the Power of a Woman!
In my last post, Dancing Backwards in High Heels, I wrote of the long and unsuccessful campaign of Southern suffragists to gain the right to vote and to simultaneously maintain their states’ rights loyalties, by working for enfranchisement through state legislative action.
That unsuccessful chapter in the national suffrage movement ended in 1913, when Alice Paul formed the Congressional Union in Washington, D.C. and began organizing for the passage of a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. Although Southern suffrage organizations split over the issue of the state vs. federal path to woman suffrage, the national organization, under Alice Paul’s leadership, worked tirelessly and exclusively for a federal enfranchisement, until the passage in 1919 of the the Nineteenth Amendment, and its ratification in 1920.
In 1913, Paul and her leadership team organized a massive parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, which was scheduled the day before Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration. According to a pictorial article in Atlantic Magazine in 2013, the parade “featured 8,000 marchers, including nine bands, four mounted brigades, 20 floats, and an allegorical performance near the Treasury Building.” You can get a real sense of the pageantry and magnitude of the crowds by opening the link below and viewing the portfolio of twenty-four pictures, which portrays the event as an extravaganza, the likes of which Cecil B. DeMille would have been hard-pressed to imitate.
Suffrage Parade 1913
Tens of thousands of spectators who had come to town for the inauguration on the following day, crowded around to witness the parade. The lead banner read “We Demand an Amendment to the United States Constitution Enfranchising the Women of the Country.” The event proceeded peacefully until the crowd began to press in, heckle, and hurl objects at the marchers, one hundred of whom had to be hospitalized.
Red Cross wagon collecting injured suffragists
I have read in other accounts that the parade pretty much upstaged Wilson’s inauguration, and led to congressional hearings that resulted in the dismissal of the Washington police superintendent, as well as continued publicity that brought the suffrage movement into the national lime light.
The women were undaunted by the violent reaction of the crowd, and would return again and again over the next seven years with their banners and signs, to picket, parade, and take up their posts at the gates of the White House and on the Capitol grounds. They endured rain, snow, bodily assault, and taunting spectators. Some were arrested and released; some were imprisoned, went on hunger strikes, and were force fed. Through it all, they maintained a calm but unyielding determination, inspired by their leader, Alice Paul, to continue the campaign until all women in the United States were given the right to vote.
The National Woman’s Party, which was founded by the Congressional Union in 1916, grew in strength, number, and resources under Paul’s guidance. It became a highly sophisticated and responsive organization, with well-appointed headquarters situated across from the White House, and a weekly publication, The Suffragist. Well-supported in terms of donations and volunteers, the sole purpose of the organization became the passage of a suffrage amendment for women. It did not come out in support of a particular political party nor would it divert its resources toward the war effort, even when the U.S. entered the fight in 1917, though many of its members volunteered their time individually.
Paul strategized a political attack on President Wilson, holding him responsible for refusing to push a federal suffrage amendment through congress, along with the other issues on his agenda for his first term. From 1917-1919, the Woman’s Party picketed the White House, the “silent sentinels” holding banners with phrases like “How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” In 1919, the demonstrations became an international embarrassment for the President, who was abroad, taking a major role in the Paris Peace Conference. At home,the protestors brought fire urns to Lafayette Square and began publicly burning his eloquent words about freedom and liberty for oppressed peoples in Europe.
Wilson personally believed in woman suffrage but stubbornly held to his conviction that it was a state issue and must be granted by state legislatures. However, he capitulated and lent his voice to the federal amendment in 1918, when he learned that suffragists had been jailed and force fed. Alice Paul was convinced that the President had not made the issue a priority, and thus continued to hold him responsible for the failure of its passage.
This strategy of holding the party in power and their leaders responsible, was one Alice Paul learned while working alongside Emmaline and Christabel Pankhurst in the suffrage movement in Great Britain. She reasoned that the tactic could be even more effective in the U.S., where a significant number of women had already gained the right to vote by state action (around two million by 1910), as opposed to Britain, where the franchise was denied to all women.
In states where women could vote, the women could be counted on to leverage the elections by voting against candidates backed by the party in power, in this case the Democrats. This would make a statement to the Democratic Party that their failure to support a federal suffrage amendment would come at a price. By defeating or narrowing the margin of victory for even a handful of candidates in the targeted states, the effect would be more powerful than if the suffragists had targeted all anti-suffrage candidates in every state, and failed to impact election outcomes in any of them.
Inez Haynes Irwin (1873-1970), published in 1921 The Story of the Woman’s Party. The book chronicles in vivid detail the actions of Alice Paul and her dedicated followers in the years between 1913 and 1920, as they left no stone unturned in the effort to bring about the passage and ratification of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. The book is well-written and reads more like a novel than a biography, as Irwin, who was a feminist and journalist, was also the author of over 40 books. A free download of the book is available at:
Irwin begins her chapter on Alice Paul with the following poem that conveys the quiet strength of this Quaker woman who was the heart and soul of the national suffrage movement from 1913-1920.
I watched a river of women,
Rippling purple, white and golden,
Stream toward the National Capitol.
Along its border,
Like a purple flower floating,
Moved a young woman, worn, wraithlike,
With eyes alight, keenly observing the marchers.
Out there on the curb, she looked so little, so lonely;
Few appeared even to see her;
No one saluted her.
Yet commander was she of the column, its leader;
She was the spring whence arose that irresistible
river of women
Streaming steadily towards the National Capitol.
Katherine Bolston Fisher,
The Suffragist, January 19, 1918.
I’m not sure how, but in my next novel I’m going to find a way for Hattie Robinson to learn about Alice Paul and to become involved in the suffrage movement. I think that is a cause that she would have embraced, regardless of the fact that she was a Southern woman and regardless of the difficulties it would have posed for her.