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Exhibition Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote

Confrontations, Sacrifice, and the Struggle for Democracy, 1916–1917

By late 1916, leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) acknowledged that the group’s state-by-state strategy was taking too long. They unveiled their “winning plan,” a two-pronged attack that paired the careful coordination of state work with more aggressive nonpartisan lobbying in Washington, D.C., for a federal amendment. By year’s end, both NAWSA and the National Woman’s Party (NWP) were working toward a federal amendment but differences remained. In January 1917, the NWP instituted the controversial and “unladylike” practice of picketing the White House. At first, President Wilson was tolerant of the pickets, but when the United States entered World War I in April, any criticism of the government was considered treasonous.

As World War I progressed, many suffragists, including longtime pacifists, stopped campaigning for the vote and devoted themselves to war work. The NWP, however, did not support the war and did not halt its agitation. Using Wilson’s own speeches against him, the NWP highlighted the government’s hypocrisy of supporting democracy abroad while denying its women citizens at home the right to vote. Beginning in June 1917 suffragists were arrested for picketing, imprisoned, and subjected to brutal treatment. Women from all social classes risked their health and reputations by continuing to protest for the vote.

Changing Strategies of NAWSA and NWP
Suffrage and World War I
Surviving Prison and Protecting Civil Liberties

Changing Strategies of NAWSA and NWP

I have worked all my life for suffrage, and I am determined that I will never again stand up on the street corners of a great city appealing to every Tom, Dick, and Harry for the right of self-government.

—Harriot Stanton Blatch, 1916

The momentum, which had started to build in 1910–1914, when seven states, all in the West, passed women’s suffrage, came to a halt in 1915–1916. Suffragists experienced one demoralizing loss after another in state referendum campaigns across the country. During those two years, only one vote was taken in Congress on the federal amendment, a defeat in the House in January 1915. By the end of 1916, Carrie Chapman Catt, back at the helm of NAWSA, had begun to implement her “winning plan” and predicted that 1917 would be “The Woman’s Hour.” Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party, disappointed that women voters in the 1916 presidential election had failed to defeat Wilson, began 1917 by introducing the new and dramatic strategy of picketing the White House.

“Governments Derive their Just Powers from the Consent of the Governed”

Helena Hill Weed (1875–1958), Norwalk, Connecticut. Photograph. NWP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (097.00.00)

Suffrage and World War I

We are being imprisoned, not because we obstructed traffic, but because we pointed out to the President the fact that he was obstructing the cause of democracy at home, while Americans fight for it abroad.

—Alice Paul, 1917

When the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, suffragists were divided on their response. The NWP continued picketing the White House and brandished even more provocative placards despite the fact that the political climate had become less accepting of government criticism. The protesters endured arrests, long prison sentences, and on at least one occasion, extreme violence after insisting they be given political prisoner status. Carrie Chapman Catt encouraged NAWSA members to contribute to the war effort, compromising her personal pacifist beliefs while winning appreciation from the Wilson administration. Many countries around the world adopted women’s suffrage during the war, including Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, and Denmark. Americans debated whether to pass suffrage as a war measure, but Congress deferred such action.

Suffrage Prisoner Cora A. Week

Harris & Ewing. Some of the Picket Line of Nov. 10. Photograph. November 10, 1917. NWP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (100.00.00)

Surviving Prison and Protecting Civil Liberties

At 4:30 that afternoon he returned, forced a tube down my throat without making any examination of my heart and swiftly poured down a pint of cold milk and eggs. I vomited in the midst of the feeding but he paid no attention.

—Elizabeth McShane, 1917

Suffrage prisoners, most of whom came from sheltered, privileged backgrounds, endured dark, unsanitary, rat-infested conditions and contaminated food. They were manhandled, forced to perform prison labor, and intentionally incarcerated with the general prison population. Their mail was often withheld, and when they began hunger strikes, they were brutally force-fed. Alice Paul was threatened with transfer to an insane asylum. The harsh treatment of the prisoners became its own story, turning public opinion in favor of the suffragists as they toured the country to share personal accounts of their imprisonment. Although many of them could have easily paid the fines, they chose prison sentences on principle and in defense of civil liberties. By the end of the campaign, 168 NWP members had served time in prison.

“All Join Me in Much Love—Very, Very Much”

Kate Heffelfinger after her release from prison, 1917. Photograph. NWP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (107.00.00)