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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: The National Womanís Party and Lafayette Park

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
-First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution                        

In 1917, Alice Paul and her National Woman's Party (NWP) set out to use their First Amendment rights to gain the vote for all American women.  They chose Lafayette Park as the stage for their protest because of its location.  It was right across the street from the White House, the home of Woodrow Wilson, the president of the United States.  The women thought they had to gain his support to succeed.

Paul was a young, well educated American woman from a prosperous Quaker family in New Jersey.  She had recently returned from England, where she had worked with the most radical wing of the British women's suffrage movement ("suffrage" means the right to vote).  She went through violent confrontations with the police, jail sentences, hunger strikes, and force feedings while she was there.  When she came back to the United States, she tried to bring some of the militancy of the British suffragettes to the American suffrage campaign.1

In 1912, Paul became chairman of the Congressional Committee, part of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).  The committee soon moved its headquarters from New York to Washington, D.C.  The nation’s capital was a better place to lobby for the passage of a constitutional amendment granting all women in America the right to vote.

On March 3, 1913, the day before President Wilson's inauguration, the committee organized a massive suffrage parade.  This was only two months after it moved to Washington.  Bands, floats, and over 5,000 people, mostly women, marched down Pennsylvania Avenue.  An unruly crowd of onlookers attacked the marchers.  The police made no effort to control the violence.  The parade brought the committee's cause national attention.

Parades were among the new tactics Alice Paul and her organization used in the suffrage campaign.  The women also added pageants, street speaking, demonstrations, and mass meetings.  They learned these techniques from many sources, including the British suffrage campaign, and the temperance and anti-slavery movements.  They focused on federal office-holders in Washington.  They quickly learned to turn the violence they encountered into a political advantage.

The NWP was established as an independent political party in 1916, with Alice Paul as its head.  In that same year, the new party set up its headquarters in Cameron House on Lafayette Square.  Cameron House was one of a number of private houses on the square converted to offices.  The square was changing rapidly in 1916.  Large office buildings had replaced some of the original houses.  Fewer wealthy and ambitious men thought they had to live close to the White House.  Diplomats, bankers, and philanthropists now lobbied lawmakers in lavish new houses located away from downtown.  Lafayette Square was, however, a very strategic and prestigious address for organizations like the NWP.2

Streetcar lines ran along Pennsylvania Avenue and H Street, which were among the busiest streets in the city.  Lafayette Park was still a garden, with shade trees, flowerbeds, and curving gravel paths.  Four large statues of Revolutionary War heroes now stood at the corners of the park.  In 1902, the Army Corps of Engineers reported that “Lafayette Park was the most highly improved and the most centrally situated small park in the city . . . seen and used by more people than any other.”3
In 1916, the leaders of the new NWP had decided they needed to be more aggressive in pressuring the government.  Their expanded tactics included direct confrontation and civil disobedience.  The campaign targeted President Wilson, their neighbor across Lafayette Park.  At first, the president was polite to suffrage delegations, but he would not change his public position.  He insisted that the states had the responsibility for deciding whether women could vote or not.  Privately he told a friend "suffrage for women will make absolutely no change in politics–it is the home that will be disastrously affected.”4

Questions for Reading 1

1. Why do you think Alice Paul chose Lafayette Square as the headquarters of her new political party?  What advantages do you think that location might have had for her campaign for women suffrage (refer to Maps 1 and 2, if necessary)?
2. How did the tactics of the suffrage campaign change in 1916?
3. What do you think President Wilson meant when he wrote that “the home . . . will be disastrously affected” if women got the vote?  How do you think the women would have reacted if they had known his private opinion?

Reading 1 is adapted from materials prepared by Janice Ruth and Barbara Bair, historical specialists, Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress, for the Women of Protest:  Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party on-line exhibit on the Library of Congress American Memory website; and George Olszewski, Lafayette Park (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1964).

1British women working for voting rights are usually called "suffragettes."  In the United States, men and women supporting women’s suffrage referred to themselves as "suffragists.”

2In 1919, the National Woman's Party moved to the Ewell House at 14 Jackson Place, across the park.  They stayed there for 20 years.

3James M. Goode, Washington Sculpture: A Cultural History of Outdoor Sculpture in the Nation's Capital (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 464-472; Annual Report of the Chief of Engineers (Washington, DC: Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, 1902), 2541, cited in Lafayette Square (Reservation 10), Historic American Buildings Survey, HABS No. DC-676, 8.

4Nancy Saunders Toy, Diary, quoted in Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Vol. 32; January I-April 16, 1915, Arthur S. Link, ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, Press, 1980), 21.


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