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”
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
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.