War on the Horizon, Pickets Stand Strong

In April of 1917, the United States entered World War I. Thousands of women across the country turned their attention to the war effort, serving in the military and supporting the government in other ways. Women worked as nurses, provided food and other supplies to the military, served as telephone operators, stenographers, entertained troops, worked as journalists, and entered the workforce. 

While Carrie Chapman Catt and NAWSA rolled up their sleeves and contributed to the war effort, Alice Paul and the NWP decided that instead of putting the suffrage movement on hold, they would step up their efforts. During the Civil War, suffragists suspended their lobbying and many believed it set them back. Paul and other leaders refused to repeat these mistakes. Upon founding the NWP, Paul had given it the guiding principle that it “should stand for one thing only—a Federal amendment granting suffrage to women,” and she would not give up on that mission now.

In the 1860s, many suffragists thought if they patriotically supported the war effort, they could convince men to give them the vote. As the U.S. drew nearer to joining WWI in 1917, some suffragists had a similar idea. Writer Alice Duer Miller felt differently, saying at a Pennsylvania State Woman’s Suffrage Party meeting, “I hope the men in this country will not have to go to war to prove the women are worth while” (New York World, Feb. 24, 2917). She, like the leaders of the NWP, did not think women’s full citizenship should be contingent on proving themselves during wartime, and that women should continue fighting for their rights.

Some suffragists feared that the NWP was actually hurting the cause by continuing to picket. As one suffrage supporter stated in a letter to the editor in the Philadelphia Ledger, “Whatever merit there is in the plea that women will regenerate government once they are given suffrage is weakened by the antics put on exhibition in Washington.” Despite this opposition, the NWP believed the pickets were the most effective way to keep attention on suffrage, and with war approaching, they felt now more than ever women needed to secure their rights. Alice Paul said the decision to continue the pickets came from a place of patriotism; that “The women want to take their part in the responsibilities of Government” (New York Times, April 3, 1917).

Picketing of the White House continued, and the banners carried by the pickets became more inflammatory, labeling President Wilson a hypocrite for fighting a war for democracy in other countries while denying it to women at home. Slogans on the banners included:

“Democracy should begin at home.”

“Russia and England are enfranchising their women in war-time.How long must American women wait for their liberty?”

“Mr. President, How long must women be denied a voice in a government which is conscripting their sons?”

Some banners even referred to the president as Kaiser Wilson, which was not well-received by onlookers. The NWP also used President Wilson’s words against him:

“We shall fight for the things we have always held nearest our

hearts. For democracy, for the right of those who submit to

authority have a voice in their own government.”

One particularly harsh banner said:

“President Wilson is deceiving the world when he appears as the prophet of democracy. He is responsible for the disfranchisement of millions of Americans. We in America know this. The World will find him out.”

If these banners were intended to incite violent responses from onlookers, they succeeded. Angry mobs of sailors, government workers, men and women attacked the suffragists. Sailors would make bets: $5 a day to the man who could collect the most banners. Police made no effort to halt the riots or to apprehend members of the mobs. Rioting continued for days at a time as the NWP continued to send replacements for those women whose banners had been torn from their hands and who were arrested on the charge of “obstructing traffic.” Over 2,000 women picketed the White House, 500 were arrested, and 168 were imprisoned.

We hope you’ll continue to follow us on social media as we share more stories from the front lines of the pickets. Stay tuned for our next post where to learn more about the NWP’s stories and brave deeds as they faced prison sentences and worse.

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