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Collection Woodrow Wilson Papers

“Millions of women await your next message, Mr. President”: The Fight for Women’s Suffrage in Letters to President Wilson

Police arresting party picketers outside White House, 1918, Records of the National Woman's Party, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Executive Office File 89 in Series 4 of the Woodrow Wilson Papers chronicles the fight for women’s suffrage that led to congressional passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in June 1919 and its ratification by the final required thirty-sixth state in August 1920. File 89 spans the years 1912-1921 and was digitized in five chronological sections, each with about one thousand images.1

File 89 documents how public opinion shifted and wavered on women’s suffrage over these crucial years. The file contains pro- and anti-suffragist arguments from men and women in personal letters, correspondence from organizations, telegrams, numerous attached documents (see George Pinkard Hamner’s anti-suffragist poem), and exchanges between Wilson, his staff and administration, and Congress. While not responding directly to letters, President Wilson often instructed his secretary on how to respond.

File 89 reveals trends in the arguments used by proponents of women’s suffrage and those who opposed them. For many suffragists, the right to vote was never an end in itself. Some supporters thought that it would solve society’s moral issues. Mary L. McLendon declared that women voters would support legislation that “protect our children, ourselves, and our homes from the evils surrounding us and them.” Horace F. Nixon disagreed, arguing that women’s suffrage “in the west shows it has failed to secure any better laws, as women divided into political parties lose their strong influence as a class.” Caroline A. Creevey concurred stating that “there has been no betterment, civic or industrial, in those states, while women of the lower classes sell their votes as eagerly and shamelessly as do the same classes of men.” Racist and nativist perspectives occasionally surfaced in arguments supporting suffrage. Why should women be denied the vote, L. A. Ireland of the Woodrow Wilson Progressive League of California asked, when Asian immigrants, African Americans, and “other who are far less worthy” enjoy the right.2 The fervent Mary H. Blakeley agreed.

The file also traces the debate over the appropriate jurisdiction to achieve the vote for women and the proper tactics. Divisions existed between women’s organizations over whether to pursue suffrage through state law or through federal legislation. Both the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and National Woman’s Party (NWP) lobbied Wilson, working behind the scenes, but the NWP also supported more radical tactics such as picketing. These debates played out in File 89. Arthur I. Moulton argued decisively for the federal intervention: “the question is a national one and ought to be decided nationally.” When legislation came to a vote in Wilson’s home state of New Jersey, there were numerous letters asking for his opinion. R. S. Taylor declared that “woman was made by her creator to be the queen of the home, the beloved companion of man,” asking that it does “not fit her for the duties of a voter.” Katherina and Isabelle Green agreed, stating that “we feel that womans [sic] best interest are safe in the hands of patriots and statesmen like yourself.” President Wilson expressed his reluctance to interfere in state suffrage fights and instructed his personal secretary to respond on his behalf.

Help us to win the vote, 1914, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. LC-USZ62-23622 (b&;w film copy neg.)

Letters also flooded into the White House during the 1916 presidential election campaign. Anna C. Murdoch wrote that “were it possible today for the women of the disenfranchised states to vote you might feel morally certain of millions of votes for your reelection in Nov.” The National Woman’s Party attempted to mobilize women for the Republican candidate, Charles Evans Hughes, who supported a federal amendment. Millie R. Trumbell of Oregon’s Child Labor Commission assured Wilson that the National Woman’s Party was met with “a rather frigid reception in our state-from both democrats and republican women. We do not propose to be LED by any group of women whose expenses are being paid out of a political pork barrel.” With increasing coordination on all fronts, the number of form letters sent to the president increased during state suffrage fights and during the 1916 presidential election.

In January 1917, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, which two months later officially merged with the National Woman’s Party, also led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, began to picket the White House. These tactics were shocking to many Americans. Mary Gape Marston declared that “it makes my blood boil” to see “the hateful methods of the misguided women of the Congressional Union . . . they represent the worst-class of suffragists.” Many women’s suffrage organizations, such as National College Equal Suffrage League and the Albany, New York Woman Suffrage Party agreed and objected to picketing and other militant tactics.

This backlash intensified when the U.S. entered World War I because of the perceived necessity for national unity and patriotism. George W. Burleigh wrote that “this is a time when, no matter what previous differences may have been, every person, should stand loyally and firmly behind you Mr. President.” John C. Theurer, disgusted with the picketing, exclaimed “Soon, millions of young men must leave for France and die for this country’s honor. Is it right, is it justice, to them, that, at the same time, females, who are no women, are permitted to disgrace and insult the government and the manhood of this country?” Ellis Meredith of the Democratic National Committee Women’s Bureau stated that “there is not a truly loyal woman in the country who is not humiliated and ashamed by the antics of this little group.” Many letters discussed how to deal with the picketers. The Pennsylvanian Women Suffrage Association advised Wilson to ignore them and make them seem “ludicrous” in the public mind. Washington Times owner Arthur Brisbane vowed to print whatever Wilson thought wise (see Wilson’s response to Brisbane). 

Conversely, many supporters called for the swift passage of women’s suffrage as a war necessity. The National Woman’s Party in Massachusetts stated that the “international crisis makes political recognition of women imperative.” Carrie Chase Davis declared that “if we are good enough to hold first aid classes and to make surgical dressings etc for the army, aren’t we good enough to vote?”

By the summer of 1917, the picketing women were arrested, the details of which were described in a National Woman’s Party press release in June. Later, Charles August Lindbergh, U.S. Representative, wrote about the horrors of an August 14 suffrage riot in Washington describing how the mob was “abusing, choking, striking, and dragging through the streets, several of the women who carried flags and banners.” By the fall, there was increasing outrage over the imprisonment and mistreatment of Alice Paul and other leaders, demonstrated by Mrs. Howard Gould who called the treatment “outrageous” and “disgraceful.” In response, Wilson sent the D.C. commissioner to check on the condition of the suffragists. After visiting the jail with a physician, Commissioner W. Gwynn Gardiner sent a report to the White House. In a note to his personal secretary, Wilson declared himself satisfied that “no real harshness of method is being used.”

President Wilson finally bowed to this pressure campaign and publicly came out in support of the federal women’s suffrage amendment in January 1918. The rest of the file chronicles the fight to pass the amendment in Congress and get it ratified, in which Wilson took a more active role. His efforts to lobby members of Congress often met with resistance, including by North Carolina Senator Lee S. Overman who respectfully declined Wilson’s request to support the amendment.  James W. Owens warned Wilson to have a change of heart.

Learn more about the women’s suffrage movement in the Library of Congress exhibition, Shall Not be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote. The Library of Congress Manuscript Division has extensive holdings documenting women’s history, including the records of the National Woman’s Party where their photographs can be explored in detail. There is also a research guide for selected photographs of the movement. Additional Library of Congress research guides (https://guides.loc.gov/) and teacher resources (/programs/teachers/about-this-program/) are available online. Explore the suffragists at the National Portrait Gallery with their exhibit Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence External. Learn more about women’s history at the National Archives.

Title quotation from Helen H. Gardener to Woodrow Wilson, November 27, 1918.


Notes

  1. Section 1 (March to April 1913); Section 2 (April 1913 to December 1915); Section 3 (1916 to March 1917); Section 4 (April 1917 to October 1920); Section 5 (undated) [Return to text]
  2. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and subsequent laws suspended Chinese immigration and declared Chinese immigrants ineligible for naturalization and thus voting rights. Similarly, many African Americans were systematically prevented from voting, notably in the South, until the civil rights movement in the 1960s. [Return to text]