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Reading 2: Picketing and Protest: Testing the First Amendment
On January 10, 1917, a dozen determined women left National Woman's Party (NWP) headquarters and marched across Lafayette Park to the White House. They carried purple, white, and gold flags and banners. The banners read, "Mr. President, What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage?" and "How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?" Every day for the next few cold and wintry months, women took up their stations in front of the White House as "silent sentinels."
The dictionary defines picketing as a "practice, used in labor and political disputes, of patrolling, usually with placards, to publicize a dispute or to secure support for a cause.” 4 American labor unions began using this tactic in the 19th century. The unions claimed that the First Amendment protected picketing, but state courts usually ruled against them. British suffragettes and the Women's Political Union in New York City had already used picketing effectively in their suffrage campaigns. NWP lawyers told the women that what they wanted to do was not against the law.
At first, onlookers greeted the pickets with curiosity and sometimes support. President Wilson smiled and tipped his hat as he left the White House grounds. By March, he refused even to look at the women. Public reactions to the pickets changed dramatically in April 1917, when the United States entered World War I. In the frenzy of patriotism that followed, many women stopped campaigning for the vote and devoted themselves to war work. The NWP did not announce its support for the war and did not suspend its picketing. By the summer of 1917, the party's attacks on Wilson were becoming harsher and more personal. Newspapers began calling the women "hecklers" and "women howlers.” 5
Many people thought it was unpatriotic for the NWP to criticize the government during wartime. Some even thought it was dangerous and subversive. Mobs started threatening the pickets and destroying their banners, while the police did nothing. 6 In June 1917, police began arresting suffrage pickets for blocking traffic. In July and August, there were more arrests. The women served their jail sentences under harsh conditions in old, unsanitary buildings. They were sometimes beaten. Alice Paul and other leaders of the NWP went on hunger strikes and were brutally force-fed.
The women’s treatment was front-page news even during wartime. The publicity shocked the nation and brought attention, sympathy, and support for the suffrage cause. With women doing so much for the war effort, government officials were already having trouble denying them the vote. Anti-suffrage arguments about women's mental and physical inferiority were less convincing as women took the jobs left behind by men drafted into military service. Finally, on January 9, 1918, President Wilson announced his support for the suffrage amendment. The next day, it passed the U.S. House of Representatives.
The NWP immediately began a campaign to force the U.S. Senate to pass the amendment. Members set up picket lines in front of the Capitol and the Senate Office Building. Bystanders and police attacked them and there were more arrests. In August 1918, the women began to hold mass meetings in Lafayette Park. In March, a federal appeals court had decided that the earlier arrests and detentions were unconstitutional, but the police still arrested more than 60 women and sent them to prison.7 Many of them went on hunger strikes. In mid-September 1918, the pickets began burning copies of Wilson's speeches at the mass meetings. On September 30, Wilson made a speech to the Senate, asking the senators to pass the suffrage amendment to help win the war. The amendment was defeated again. The count was two votes short. (Two-thirds of the Senate must approve a Constitutional amendment.)
The end of World War I on November 11, 1918, had no effect on the NWP's efforts to force Wilson to get two more senators to vote for the amendment. On January 1, 1919, the women began a series of "watch-fire" demonstrations. Flaming urns were set up in front of the White House and in Lafayette Park. Women dropped copies of any Wilson speeches and books that mentioned "liberty," "freedom," or "democracy" into the fires. The pickets kept the fires burning even when bystanders and policemen put the flames out. More women were arrested, this time on charges of lighting fires on public property. They immediately began hunger strikes. In February, the women burned a picture of the president and more arrests followed. The suffrage amendment was still one vote short in the Senate.
The Senate finally passed the federal suffrage amendment on June 4, 1919. This began a fierce 14-month campaign for ratification by three-quarters of the states. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the amendment. The 19th Amendment, stating simply that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” became part of the U.S. Constitution eight days later.
The brave members of the NWP defended their First Amendment rights and their right to dissent even in wartime. At great personal cost, they picketed and protested to secure voting rights for women in every state of the Union. Women of all classes risked their health, jobs, and reputations to join the protests. According to one historian, approximately 2,000 women picketed between 1917 and 1919 and 500 women were arrested. Of these, 168 went to jail, some more than once. The NWP made heroes of the suffrage prisoners. The women went on nationwide publicity tours dressed in their prison garb. Everywhere they went, they spoke about their experiences in prison, winning much public support for their cause.8
The members of the NWP did not work alone. The National Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) also supported the federal suffrage amendment, although its leaders feared that the NWP's "unladylike" behavior and the "unwelcome" publicity would make it difficult to gain widespread support for women's voting rights. They supported the government during World War I and opposed the NWP’s picketing as unpatriotic. In spite of these differences, the NWP militants helped NAWSA by making the older organization appear moderate by comparison. Politicians who were beginning to reconsider their anti-suffrage position could respond to NAWSA’s support of a suffrage amendment without appearing to yield to the “extreme” tactics of the NWP. Both organizations could rightly claim success when women all over the United States voted for the first time on November 2, 1920.
By exercising their First Amendment rights, the women of the NWP provided a model for many others who have used Lafayette Park as a stage to present their protests to the president on his own doorstep.
Questions for Reading 2