Interview with Eleanor Clift: The Rise of Women's Suffrage MENU
Suffragists demonstrating in Chicago, 1916.

Interview with Eleanor Clift: The Rise of Women’s Suffrage

By Nancy Tappan
August 2017 • American History Magazine

Winning the vote meant winning the publicity war

WHEN AMERICAN suffragists kicked off their campaign with the 1849 Seneca Falls Convention, newspapers labeled advocates for giving women the vote “divorced wives, childless women and some old maids.” Daily Beast columnist Eleanor Clift, author of Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment, talks about how journalistic attitudes regarding female suffrage evolved.

What did British suffrage campaigners teach their American sisters? American suffragists wanted to be seen as ladylike. British “suffragettes” were more confrontational and savvier about publicity. They disrupted Parliament, smashed windows, got arrested, and went on hunger strikes, all of which drew a lot of press. In 1907, Americans Alice Paul and Lucy Burns met while traveling in London, where the two participated in suffrage demonstrations, were arrested together, went on hunger strikes, and became friends and allies. They realized the press was the key—and that people respond to pretty young women.

Eleanor Clift, who climbed from Newsweek’s typing pool to cover the White House, became a liberal icon as a regular on TV’s McLaughlin Group. Winning the vote meant winning the publicity war.

Describe the 1913 march in Washington and its impact. The day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, suffragists organized a demonstration by 8,000 women carrying white, purple, and gold banners. Paul put at the head of the parade a beautiful young woman, Inez Milholland, riding a white horse. The New York Times called the event “one of the most beautiful spectacles ever staged in this country.” A Washington Post headline played it cute: “Woman’s Beauty, Grace and Art Bewilder the Capital—Miles of Fluttering Feminity Present Entrancing Suffrage Appeal.” When men stormed the procession and beat marchers, police did nothing. Newspaper editorials expressed shock. There were Capitol Hill hearings. The Washington, DC, police chief lost his job. It was terrific publicity.

Why did Paul start a suffrage group? Paul was impatient with National American Woman Suffrage Association leader Carrie Chapman Catt, who believed in earnest persuasion. Paul adopted the British tactic of campaigning against whoever held power—in this case, the Democrats, supposed allies but not vigorous on suffrage. In 1914, Paul split with NAWSA to form the Congressional Union. In that year’s elections, the Union defeated 20 Democrats.

How did 1916 presidential candidates react to suffragist pressure? Wilson promised Catt a suffrage plank—but the Democratic platform left suffrage to the states, same as the Republicans. But under pressure from newspapers, GOP candidate Charles Evans Hughes came out for a constitutional amendment—the first major party candidate ever to endorse a federal female suffrage law. 

How did death help the movement? On October 19, 1916, Inez Milholland Boissevain, the beautiful rider from the 1913 march, was campaigning when she collapsed. A month later she died, probably from leukemia. Her last public words—“Mr. President, how much longer must women wait for liberty?”—became a rallying cry. Coverage of her death was intense. The Washington Times headline was “Mrs. Boussevain’s Memory Hallowed.” Alice Paul made Boissevain a martyr.

In January 1917, Paul’s group picketed the White House. “Silent Sentinels”—mostly well-to-do, well-connected women—picketed every day except Sunday. Paul’s publicity machine kept them in the news. Wilson finally got angry and ordered the picketers arrested.

On April 7, Congress declared war on Germany. Catt and her group stopped almost all their political activity. Mainstream suffragists threw themselves into war work. But Paul’s radicals kept picketing. In Washington, waves of upper-class women were arrested; 16 were sentenced to 60 days in the workhouse alongside criminals both white and black, fed the same gruel, and assigned the same gunnysack uniforms. The suffragist prisoners got word of conditions to reporters. After three days, Wilson issued a blanket pardon. 

Paul’s group pressed on. They burned copies of Wilson’s speeches and raised a sign reading “Kaiser Wilson.” This sparked anti-suffrage rioting, which police did nothing to quell. More women were arrested. Some, including Paul, were roughed up. The Washington Herald blamed “pro-German agitators.”

What was the turning point? On October 20, 1917, Paul was arrested, convicted of obstructing traffic, and sentenced to seven months in  jail. A psychiatrist interviewed her, intending to commit her to a mental hospital. Demanding to be treated as political prisoners, Paul and union organizer Rose Winslow went on hunger strikes; jailers force-fed them. Reports of this competed with the war for the front pages. Burns and 40 others were arrested for picketing the White House and sent to the workhouse, where guards beat them. All the suffragists went on hunger strike. The warden, fearing someone would die, moved Burns and another leader to the DC jail for more forced feeding. The hunger strikes continued until the White House, faced with scores of women willing to starve, conceded defeat.

On January 10, 1918, the House, by one vote, passed the 19th Amendment, giving women suffrage. Who deserves credit? President Wilson. He was unwilling to campaign openly, but behind the scenes applied pressure.

And in the Senate? In early 1918, suffrage was 11 votes short. Lobbying won over nine opponents. Supportive senators’ maneuvering won time. When 48 suffragists were arrested, the administration made an incalculable error by incarcerating them in a decrepit building. “All of Jailed Suffragettes Reported Ill,” the Washington Herald reported. Seeing a wedge issue for the fall elections, the minority Republicans took a pro-suffrage position. Democrats did nothing. In September 1918, Wilson told a suffrage delegation he was “heartily in sympathy” with the women—who went straight to Lafayette Square and burned a transcript of his remarks. The next day, when the amendment came before the Senate, Wilson appeared and made an impassioned speech, saying women’s war work had earned them the vote. The amendment lost by two votes.

What effect did the November 1918 elections have? The GOP won House and Senate majorities. The Democrats didn’t want the Republicans to get credit for suffrage. They asked Wilson to request the new Congress meet in special session. The 19th Amendment passed the House handily and, on June 4, 1919, by two votes in the Senate. Ratification by the required 36 states came down to Tennessee state representative Harry Burn, who voted yes because his mother asked him to.

How did suffrage work out? Women turned out in large numbers in the 1920 election, but the assumption became that women voted as their husbands did or canceled out their husbands. It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan’s time that the “gender gap” showed that women tend to vote somewhat differently than men. ✯

This column was originally published in the August 2017 issue of American History magazine. Subscribe here.

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