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ON JUNE 21, 1917, Lucy Burns of Brooklyn and Katharine Morey of Boston were arrested in front of the White House. Their crime? Obstructing traffic. They had stood on the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk with a banner imploring President Woodrow Wilson to take action. Two months after America declared war on Germany, picketing the White House seemed disloyal to an awful lot of people, perhaps even treasonous. The two women stood silently, yet their banner mocked Wilson’s April call to “make the world safe for democracy”; Burns and Morey thought democracy should begin at home. They wanted the most fundamental right accorded citizens in a democracy: the right to vote.

The 1917 White House picketing campaign, orchestrated by Alice Paul, was an audacious nonviolent political demonstration that drove the 70-year-old votes-for-women movement to a fever pitch. The campaign also ignited a national debate about Americans’ civil rights in time of war. Controversial in its day and for 50 years thereafter, the 1917 picketing is now regarded by historians as an outstanding example of the power of political protest, and Alice Paul is seen as its brilliant strategist. The passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which secured the right to vote for American women, can be directly linked to the White House pickets.

By 1917 the idea of women voting had achieved a notable level of acceptance in the United States. The largest advocacy organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), boasted a million members. Hundreds of local, state and regional suffrage groups kept the issue alive. Seasoned activists, however, remembered a dispiriting struggle that had absorbed three generations of women.

Woman suffrage had long been joined with questions of civil and social rights. The work of pioneers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony on behalf of abolition led them to reconsider their own status. From the 1840s, they had urged abolition, while enduring criticism, ridicule and, in a few cases, arrest for promoting women’s rights. Many felt victory close at hand for both causes after the Civil War. Instead, in 1869, when Congress proposed a constitutional amendment to grant black men the vote, the suffrage movement split into two rival groups—one that insisted on the inclusion of women in the amendment and one willing to accept that this was “the negro’s hour.” In the end, the 15th Amendment enfranchised black males only, and the rift between the women’s groups took two decades to heal. They finally reunited in 1890 to create NAWSA.

AS THE 20TH century began, ideas about the proper female role were changing along with women’s lives. A rapidly transforming culture and economy had drawn increasing numbers of middle-class women into higher education, while working-class women found new job opportunities in industrial and office settings. African-American women organized their own advocacy groups to combat the rise of Jim Crow in the South and persistent discrimination in the North. But there were few checks on working conditions or social problems such as low wages, sweatshops and child labor. As calls for reform multiplied, women were often the most prominent advocates for change. By 1900 more and more women came to see the vote as a way of gaining power to achieve their wide-ranging goals.

Susan B. Anthony and others had tried in vain to interest Congress in a woman suffrage amendment once the 15th Amendment established a precedent for extending the franchise. However, suffragists did have success in the states, the traditional avenue for expanded voting rights. Western states were the most receptive: Nine states west of the Mississippi had granted women the vote by 1913. Most suffrage supporters felt more states had to follow suit to put a federal amendment within reach. But Alice Paul was one of those who felt the time for a constitutional amendment was now.

Alice Paul seemed an unlikely candidate to lead a national movement. A modest young Quaker from New Jersey, Paul had studied political science and earned a Ph.D. in sociology before traveling to England to further her education. There she plunged into suffrage advocacy with the militant suffragettes led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. The Pankhursts pulled off daring street protests, which aroused praise and condemnation on both sides of the pond. When the British government began arresting suffragettes, the Pankhursts refused to back down. They answered imprisonments with hunger strikes and capitalized on public shock at the forced feedings designed to break the prisoners’ resolve. By her own admission a “heart and soul convert,” Alice Paul became one of those courageous enough to endure repeated incarcerations and the indignities that followed; her formerly robust health was compromised for years to come. By early 1910 the struggle in Britain went on, but a frailer Paul returned to America with a burning desire to continue the fight for women’s equality.

In 1913 Paul vaulted to national attention and quickly gained a reputation for bold and controversial action. In March she organized a massive suffrage procession for NAWSA down Pennsylvania Avenue—one day before Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration. Thousands joined the parade, rejecting the common notion that women marching in the streets for their rights was a lot like streetwalking for money. Spectators spat abuse and roughed up the women, spawning a flood of press coverage and national outrage. A Senate debate about the event mirrored the national uncertainty about a woman’s place. One senator suggested that an abused marcher “ought to have been at home.” An incensed colleague shouted back, “She had as much right there as any one.”

The parade and its aftermath energized American suffragists (who distinguished themselves from British “suffragettes”). Paul built on her apprenticeship with the Pankhursts and proved an ambitious and resourceful leader who fearlessly pushed boundaries. But the question of timing bedevils all civil rights movements. Is it time to push aggressively or to wait patiently? Although women’s roles were changing in the early 20th century, female reputations were still easily tarnished. Many suffragists rightly feared that engaging in actions deemed unwomanly could taint their whole lives. So most people in favor of the vote for women argued for a slower pace, for action within the realm of social acceptability. It was a special breed of woman who joined in when a firebrand like Alice Paul urged activists to, for example, accost the president at public events in 1915 or campaign against his dominant Democratic Party in 1914 and 1916. When Paul’s insistence on brash Pankhurst-style demonstrations led the more conventional NAWSA to spurn her efforts, Paul launched her own group, the National Woman’s Party, in 1916.

By 1917 many Americans, including suffragists, viewed the NWP as confrontational and quite possibly injurious to the cause. After the United States entered World War I in April, NAWSA announced that its members would turn their focus to supporting the home-front war effort. Alice Paul’s decision to continue pressing for a suffrage amendment in the face of war only confirmed the dim view many held of her Woman’s Party. Cognizant of the ultra-patriotic fervor that followed the country’s declaration of war, Paul hastened to assure doubters that the NWP’s continuing activism was “prompted by the highest patriotic motives.” After all, American women, following the Pankhursts, were simply exercising the sacred right of petition, a foundation of English law harking back to the Magna Carta and adopted by American revolutionaries seeking independence.

Even so, many people couldn’t figure out why Paul was so focused on the president, who plays no formal role in amending the Constitution. An amendment passed by Congress moves directly to the states for ratification. But Paul’s political science training led her to believe that the president could compel his party, which controlled both the Senate and the House in 1917, to pass a suffrage amendment. She aimed at converting him to her cause; thus far, Woodrow Wilson had expressed only his exasperation with the NWP. He was among those who dismissed the “silent sentinels” who first appeared at the White House gates on January 10, 1917, tipping his hat to the “ladies” as his automobile drove through the gates or ignoring them altogether.

THE APRIL DECLARATION of war shifted the ground beneath the pickets. For months, the banner-bearers of the National Woman’s Party stood before the White House in all kinds of weather. Most onlookers and many in the press thought them silly or misguided; one letter-writer to the Washington Post called the protest “mad banners and bad manners.” After war was declared, the pickets noticed the darkening mood of passersby more attuned to war drums than woman suffrage. At the president’s behest, in June Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, legislation aimed at tamping down any political dissent.

Though Paul was urged by many (including her mother) to call off the pickets, she was determined to provoke the sort of heavy-handed response that had gained the British suffragettes so much attention. On June 20 Lucy Burns and Katharine Morey went out with a banner implicitly calling the president a liar for promising to make the world safe for democracy. “We the women of America,” the banner read, “tell you that America is not a democracy.” The next day, Burns and Morey were arrested. They refused to pay the fine for obstructing traffic and went to jail. Each day, more pickets appeared at the White House and the police continued to arrest them.

Paul managed the considerable publicity surrounding the arrests to maximize embarrassment for the president. The women’s brief trials became forums for debating the legality of the picketing. As picket Mabel Vernon exclaimed, “If you think we were performing illegally for one hundred and fifty days, you should have interfered before the one hundred and fifty-first day.” Paul also trumpeted the imprisonment of the most socially prominent prisoners and detailed for the press the abysmal conditions of the jail. After police jailed 16 pickets on one July day, high-level political supporters prevailed upon the president to pardon the women. Paul and the prisoners exulted in this first public acknowledgment by Wilson of their protest, but railed at the idea that they were law-breakers in the first place. One prisoner, Alison Hopkins, insisted that the pardon “in no way mitigates the injustice inflicted upon me by the violation of my constitutional civil rights.”

Realizing she had struck a nerve, Paul continued the picketing campaign and reveled in the controversy. She welcomed the support of leftist groups that were also resisting Wilson administration censorship or repression. Judges gave longer sentences as the summer wore on; by September they were giving the pickets 30 days and sending women to the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia as well as the District of Columbia city jail. Subjected to rancid food and physical abuse and disgusted with the administration’s refusal to designate them political prisoners, the pickets began a hunger strike, which Paul ramped up for the press. In October, despite her own fragile health, Paul decided that she too should be arrested. The banner she carried bore more of Wilson’s own wartime words: “The time has come to conquer or submit. For us there can be no other choice.” She was sentenced to seven months in jail.

Wilson, under increasing pressure, had ordered two investigations of jail conditions by the time of Alice Paul’s incarceration. He also acceded to an attempt by D.C. commissioners to get Paul committed to an asylum. That effort was stymied only by the refusal of one physician to judge Paul insane. The dozens of women jailed alongside Paul joined her in a hunger strike; as in England, forced feeding became the government’s response. After the press instituted a deathwatch on the frail NWP leader, Wilson finally threw up his hands and ordered all the suffrage prisoners released just before Thanksgiving 1917. Six weeks later, he declared his support for a federal suffrage amendment. The end was in sight.

More persuasion and demonstrations became necessary before the 19th Amendment finally passed Congress in June 1919. By that time, women in 24 states—half the country—had won suffrage. Women’s contributions to the war effort, including working in factories, running farms and serving overseas as nurses and ambulance drivers, also hastened the process. Ratification was swift: Despite failures in eight states, the amendment was made law on August 26, 1920, now deemed Women’s Equality Day.

Paul soon moved on to new challenges. While NAWSA became the League of Women Voters in 1920, the National Woman’s Party persevered on behalf of women’s equality. Paul authored the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923 and lobbied for its passage for decades. She founded the World Woman’s Party in 1938 and was instrumental in securing equal rights provisions in the 1945 United Nations Charter and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The sex discrimination clause in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is there because of the efforts of Paul and the NWP.

After the social and political protests of the 1960s and ’70s, historians began to reevaluate the 1917 picketing campaign and Alice Paul. The accepted historical narrative of woman suffrage shifted, as historians began to recognize that change often happens from the ground up, with ordinary citizens compelling national debates about America’s founding principles. Rather than the more moderate NAWSA leader Carrie Chapman Catt assuming the sole starring role, Alice Paul gained increasing attention as a commanding figure who reshaped the suffrage landscape and spurred victory.

Paul was the only suffrage leader who lived to see feminism resurge in the 1970s. As the new generation of feminists searched for women’s history, they discovered Alice Paul, took up the controversial Equal Rights Amendment and successfully pushed Congress to pass it in 1972. Thirty-five states ratified the ERA before Paul’s death in 1977, three short of the 38 required by the Constitution. The ERA did not die with Paul; the quest continues today, with supporters striving for another prize like the 1920 suffrage victory, which Alice Paul called “not a gift but a triumph.”

J.D. Zahniser is the coauthor, with the late Amelia R. Fry, of Alice Paul: Claiming Power (Oxford University Press).


Originally published in the December 2015 issue of American History magazine. Subscribe here.