Alice Paul came home from England exhausted but determined. She had a direction for her future. Though not seasoned with her Quaker community, her testimony for gender equality as expressed in her push for women’s suffrage was clear. And, she had a friend, Lucy Burns, whom she had met at a police station in England after both were arrested at a Pankhurst-led rally. Lucy was ten years older, principled, energetic, and intelligent. Like Alice’s father, her father was a banker, her upbringing comfortable. She had been educated at Vassar and appreciated Alice’s knowledge and intelligence.
Alice returned to work with the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) with many of the women she remembered from her teenage years. The organization was working state by state to get women the vote and had gained some success in a number of Western states. Alice asked to run the Congressional Committee in Washington, DC. There, her decision to work for a federal constitutional amendment declaring women’s right to vote soon formed. She enlisted Lucy Burns and sought permission to hold a procession down Pennsylvania Avenue on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in 1913. After much discussion and Alice’s promise to raise the money to pay for it, approval came and planning began. There was much to be done. The bureaucracy was often unhelpful and not willing to give permits or approve Alice’s plans. She persevered. After all, her father had once said, “When there is a job to be done, I bank on Alice.”
The “procession” was entitled “Ideals and Virtues of American Womanhood” and was to include bands, floats, mounted patrols, and thousands of marchers – pioneers of the suffragist movement, women representatives of workers and professionals, and men supporting the call for an amendment. The procession was to be led by the beautiful socialite from New York, Inez Mulholland, an activist lawyer, wearing Grecian robes and cape, riding on a white horse. A tableau depicting the struggles and progress of men and women in America would greet the marchers at the end of the procession. Alice had learned about showmanship from the Pankhursts in England. Money was tight, but Alice knew how to finagle an extra donation and how to spend the money economically. She even went to Congress to get them to mandate police cooperation in protecting the participants.
The big day – March 3, 1913 – arrived. Thousands were in town for Woodrow Wilson’s swearing in ceremonies the next day. A controversy had arisen over the presence of black women marchers in the march. Alice feared white women from the South and other more conservative areas would not come if the black women marched. Other leaders of NAWSA agreed. They also were afraid Southern Congressmen would not back the amendment in the states or at the federal level. Alice asked black suffragists not to participate. They refused. She asked them to walk separately at the back of the procession. Perhaps she knew of the “black back benches” at the Arch Street Quaker Meeting. Some of the members of the many black women’s clubs supporting suffrage agreed. Sorority members from Howard University were joined by Mary Church Terrell. Others, like Ida B. Wells, a prominent member of the Illinois delegation and a founder of the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago did not and refused to go to the back of the procession.
Fortunately, there were cooler and more principled heads. Integrated groups from Michigan and New York had come. Ida B. Wells joined the Illinois group late and walked in the front row between her white colleagues, Belle Squires and Virginia Brooks. (They were to return to Chicago and push through state legislation making all women eligible to vote in local and federal elections just three months later.} . The men’s contingent, led by a Quaker from Philadelphia, agreed to walk in the rear, giving space between the white groups to the front and the black ones behind it.
While the procession began with a flourish, the 5000 marchers were soon obstructed by hundreds of men, shouting obscenities, pushing, shoving, and dragging women from the advancing line. The New York and Pennsylvania guards, the Boy Scouts, and other supporters were unable to offer enough protection. Policemen did little, some rather enjoying the chaos. Poor Helen Keller, guided by a friend, was so afraid, hurt, and upset that she could not give her speech. Medical people could not reach the injured. Finally, Fort Myers cavalrymen arrived to steer the onlookers from Pennsylvania Avenue and allow some of the marchers to reach their destination. Alice was somewhat devastated by the violence but pleased with the media publicity and the public’s response and discussion of women’s suffrage. She was also elated when Sen. Joseph Bristow and Rep. Frank Mondell of Kansas introduced a federal constitutional amendment into both houses of Congress on April 3, 1913.
She went to the White House for another meeting with Woodrow Wilson requesting his support for a constitutional amendment. When he refused to give his support, Alice and Lucy went back to the drawing board. She remembered the advice of her Swarthmore College math professor, Susan Cunningham, “Use thy gumption.” They left NAWSA and formed the Congressional Union and later the National Women’s Party. Her college classmate at Swarthmore, Mabel Vernon, came to join them and continued to serve in many ways for five years. A headquarters across from the White House was procured, so Woodrow Wilson and the members of the wealthy all-male Cosmos Club would be aware of their presence everyday. They raised funds from some of their rich friends like Alva Belmont, another New York socialite and enlisted volunteers. Alice developed her own brand of civil disobedience, The Silent Sentinels, a group of women picketing daily in front of the White House, starting in January 1917. They carried banners made in the colors of the movement – green for hope, purple for dignity, and white for purity. Some added gold for value. As the campaign continued, the banners often used Wilson’s own words to point out his hypocrisy and lack of honest support for their cause. They carried on, getting volunteers for individual state days, specific profession days, and member days. When WWI began, the picketing carried on despite widespread criticism and accusations of lack of patriotism. Hecklers shouted at them. The leaders cautioned against responding in kind and arguing with the hecklers even when they pushed and shoved. This was a kind of militant passive resistance that Gandhi would have approved, not the more violent Pankhurst rendition he rejected in his visit to England.
Then arrests for obstructing traffic began. Some of the women were taken with Alice to the D.C. Jail. There Alice was treated very badly, refused “political prisoner” status, and put in solitary confinement. She went on a hunger strike, was force fed three times a day, and threatened with being taken to an insane asylum. Others were taken to the Occoquan Workhouse, a rat-infested, dirty, noisy, crowded facility, run by William Whittaker and Minnie Herndon. The food was limited, worm-infested, cold, and tasteless. Complaints were not heeded. Even the oldest picketers like Mary Nolan, a 73 year old disabled woman, were mistreated. Showers were infrequent, soap non-existent, and linens filthy.
On Nov. 14, 1917, the picketers, who included Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker, were subjected to a “Night of Terror.” Brutal beatings and other tortuous actions occurred. An older woman suffered a heart attack and was left untreated for hours. Women were dragged down the hallways. Others were strung up by their arms and left that way. News did get out. A lawyer supporter, Dudley Malone, made sure the press and the public received the details. Negative public and Congressional response led to all prisoners being released. A judge ruled the latest arrests for obstructing traffic illegal. Woodrow Wilson, wanting a positive legacy, came out in support of the amendment in early 1918. It took several votes before passing in Congress on June 14, 1919 and going to the states for ratification. A vibrant campaign, sparked by hard work, sacrifice, and creativity, followed with delegations to states, a Suffrage Special train across the country, and a California to Congress automobile trek. Alice, known for her athletic ability and endurance in high school and college, maintained her strength. Only once did she retreat to Paulsdale Farm for a short rest. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment when Harold T. Burn, a 24 year old legislator responded positively to a telegram plea from his mother and voted “yes.” Hooray for Mrs. Burns! Hooray for a son who listens to his mother!
Questions to consider:
- If you could go back in time, what would you have told Alice Paul before the March 1913 Parade about black women participating or being asked to walk at the back of the parade?
- What are the pros and cons of being passionately focused on a single issue as Alice Paul was?
- Name 8-10 character traits that Alice Paul expressed and describe whether you think they were good or bad and why.
- If you had been a picketer outside the White House, why would you have continued to go day after day, week after week, month after month? What are other ways you could have participated or helped those who picketed?
- How does media help or hurt people trying to bring social justice or make the world better for everyone?
- you.tube.com 6/8/2015 ” Women Vote in New Jersey”
- Mama Went to Jail for the Vote by Katherine Karr – a picture book for Gr. K-2, well presented but lacks any pictures or references to women of color
- Miss Paul and the President by Dean Robbins – another picture book for Gr. K-2, describing Alice Paul’s interactions with President W. Wilson
- A Time for Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen by Kathryn Lasky, a Dear America selection for Gr. 3-5
- Rightfully Ours: How Women Won the Vote, 21 Activities by Kerrie Logan Hollihan, hands-on activities for Gr. 5-8
- HerStory by Katherine Halligan for Gr. 5-8
- Suffragists in Washington, DC: The 1913 Parade and the Fight for the Vote by Rebecca Boggs Roberts for Gr. 6-12
- African American Women and the Vote, 1837-1965 by Cynthia Neverdon for Gr. 9-12 and adults