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Penn[sylvania] on the picket line-- 1917.

[Detail] Penn[sylvania] on the picket line-- 1917

1915-1917: Formation of the National Woman’s Party and Picketing the White House

Throughout 1915, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and the Congressional Union organized state branches, held a national convention of women voters, collected 500,000 signatures on a suffrage petition, and testified before Congress, among other activities. At the end of the year, CU and NAWSA made a last attempt to reconcile, but the attempt failed. In June 1916, CU’s leaders formed the National Woman’s Party.

After President Wilson’s reelection, Alice Paul called for members of the National Woman’s Party to picket the White House to convince the president to put pressure on Democratic senators to vote in favor of a constitutional suffrage amendment. Lucy Burns led most of the picket demonstrations. Picketers were not molested and, in fact, the president often waved to them as he left the White House. To maintain interest in the press, Paul and Burns organized groups representing women from different walks of life to picket on different days.

  • Why do you think continued press coverage was an important aspect of the National Woman’s Party’s strategy?
  • How might having women picket in groups from different walks of life raise interest in the movement?

Once the United States entered World War I, things changed. In June 1917, the police began arresting women outside the White House. Undaunted by these arrests, women marched to the White House on Independence Day, carrying banners reading “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed;” they were promptly arrested. In a demonstration on August 14, 1917, a melee broke out as women carried banners addressing the president as “Kaiser Wilson.” Servicemen often agitated demonstrators and, in some cases, attacked pickets while policemen did nothing to prevent the confrontation.

In October 1917, police announced that if women continued to picket the White House, they could expect sentences of up to six months in prison. The day following the announcement, Alice Paul marched from party headquarters to the White House carrying a banner with one of Wilson’s slogans, “The time has come to conquer or submit for there is but one choice - we have made it.”

  • What do you think were the benefits of picketing the White House? What costs might this strategy have had for the NWP?
  • What was the point of including slogans on picketers’ banners? Why might these slogans provoke onlookers? Which of the slogans that you have seen in the photos is most appealing to you? Explain your answer.
  • Why do you think the U.S. entry into World War I changed the situation for the NWP picketers? What parallels could you draw with public and government responses to protestors during other wars?
  • Why do you think Alice Paul continued to defy the police by sending picketers to the White House? In her place, what would you have done?
  • To what extent did the arrest and incarceration of picketers play into the hands of the National Woman’s Party?

Paul and other picketers were arrested but given suspended sentences. Returning to the picket line, Paul and Rose Winslow were arrested and given seven-month jail sentences for obstructing traffic. First offenders received six-month sentences. Paul and Winslow considered themselves political prisoners and organized a hunger strike. Hunger strikes spread throughout the district jail and to area workhouses, where other women picketers had been incarcerated. Jailers began force-feeding, a painful and humiliating experience that Paul had endured while jailed in England several years earlier.

  • How did long jail sentences arouse public support?
  • A political prisoner is a person detained by a government because the government believes the person’s ideas or image threaten the security of the state. Why did suffrage prisoners consider themselves to be political prisoners? Do you agree that the jailed suffragists were political prisoners?
  • Why would members of the National Woman’s Party resort to a hunger strike? What could they expect to gain by refusing to eat?

Arrests at the gates of the White House did nothing to stop the daily gathering of women picketers. More women were arrested and given sentences varying from six days to six months. (See the Gallery for photos of many of the women who served jail time as a result of their participation in suffrage protests.) Lucy Burns received a six-month sentence; Mary Nolan, 73, was sentenced to six days in consideration of her advanced age. Nolan and most others arrested on November 10, 1917, were sent to Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. On arrival at the workhouse, women refused to put on prison uniforms or work; the guards became violent, kicking and beating the prisoners in what became known in the suffrage movement as “The Night of Terror.” Women again resorted to a hunger strike. Upon their release, many were too weak to walk on their own.

What advantage would the National Woman’s Party gain through publication of photographs like this one?