Street-Theater Pickets Played Against War Backdrop

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Suffragist Virginia Arnold with banner

(WOMENSENEWS)–There were 12 women on the first day, a chilly Jan. 10, 1917. They stood silently outside the gates of Woodrow Wilson’s White House wearing overcoats, scarves and gloves, holding large banners in purple, white and gold that said: “Mr. President, What will you do for woman suffrage?”

This bold move, which made headlines across the country, had been dreamed up by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, both veterans of the campaign for suffrage in England, where women chained themselves to fences and went to jail to win the vote. Until then, the U.S. movement had largely concentrated on persuading male voters and legislators to pass suffrage in each individual state of the union. Paul and her supporters took the fight to the streets and set their eyes on rousing national public opinion to force Congress and the president to amend the U.S. Constitution and guarantee women the right to vote.

Widespread publicity attracted many critics who called the women “unpatriotic” or “traitors” for persisting in the face of war in Europe, which the U.S. was to enter soon. They also attracted supporters, who joined the picketers or brought them coffee or hot bricks to stand on as winter whipped around them. Over the next 18 months, thousands came to the capital to participate in this piece of political street theater, among them the Catholic activist Dorothy Day, poet Louise Bryant, members of Daughters of the American Revolution, relatives of prominent politicians and workers from the garment trades.

As circumstances changed, so did the tactics of the demonstrators. When Wilson went from greeting his critics with amusement and cordiality to intractability, the protestors redoubled their efforts. They marked the day of his second inauguration–March 4, 1917–as hundreds of women with banners encircled the White House while a band played. On April 2, as the president and Congress voted to enter the war in Europe “to make the world safe for democracy,” the banners began to echo the rhetoric and challenged, “How long must women wait for liberty?” As war fever swept the nation, the picketers kept pace: “How long must women be denied a voice in a government that is conscripting their sons?”

Throughout the war, the escalation continued. Beaten by street mobs and jailed in large numbers, the protestors declared themselves political prisoners. Their banners, even as peace talks drew near in 1918, audaciously called the president “Kaiser Wilson,” mocked his words at the White House gates by burning pages of his speeches on democracy and eventually set fire to an effigy of the president himself.

On May 19, 1919, after the war ended, a special session of Congress was convened to begin passage of the 19th Amendment and the curtain came down on the White House pickets. The federal amendment would make its way through Congress and be ratified by 36 states until it was quietly signed into law on Aug. 26, 1920.

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at louise@womensenews.org.

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For more information:

Alice Paul Institute:
http://www.alicepaul.org/

Sewall-Belmont House:
http://www.sewallbelmont.org/

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