strike making headline news

US History
Ch. 22
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death
The Story of Alice Paul & the American Suffragists Movement
“Democracy is but a name!”
-Helen Keller, 1911
American women had been organizing and fighting for the right to vote since the 1840s. These women
were called suffragists (derived from the word suffrage, meaning the right to vote). Like other minorities struggling
for equality, their opponents used a variety of methods to discredit and slander suffragists and their cause. An
article from Life magazine published in 1906 highlighted some of the arguments against giving women the right to
vote. Read the following excerpts:
The primary objection to woman suffrage is that it would add an enormous army of unqualified voters to the
huge mass of them that vote now.
There is nothing the average American woman wants that the average American man will not give her if he
can get it.
Have women a moral right to vote? There is no moral right about it. There is some expression of concern just
now about a decay of moral sense in the electorate.
In addition to these arguments others stated that giving women the right to vote would destroy American society;
they predicted it would cause marriage and the family unit to collapse. An anti-suffragist from Texas wrote, “In
fact, marriage and family could even be jeopardized -- a husband and wife could be torn asunder if they disagreed
politically, and politically involved women might decide to have fewer children.”
Despite difficult obstacles, these women persevered. The National American Women’s Suffragist
Association (NAWSA) was the largest organization of women fighting for the right to vote. Women from all
backgrounds were involved in the cause - from a wealthy Senator’s wife to impoverished, working immigrants.
Alice Paul, a Quaker and college graduate, and Lucy Burns, a college graduate from Brooklyn, joined their ranks.
At the time most people viewed the issue of women’s suffrage as something each state should decide for itself.
NAWSA had been pushing individual states to legalize women’s right to vote. Wyoming was the first state to
legalize women’s suffrage in 1869. However by 1916, only 9 states had passed similar laws.
Paul felt that a Constitutional Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote in EVERY state, was the
new direction NAWSA should adopt. In 1916, during the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, Paul and Burns
organized a large parade in support of the suffragist movement in Washington, DC. Many women adorned
costumes and carried banners in support of their cause. The crowd’s reaction to the parade was unexpected. Instead
of support, the men in the crowd taunted the women and threw bottles at them. Eventually a riot erupted, to
which the DC police turned a blind eye. These women were beaten and bruised by the anti-suffragists. The
Washington Post, a newspaper in DC with a large number of readers, picked up the story and sympathized with the
women. This event launched Alice Paul to the forefront of the suffragist movement. She was made an immediate
leader. Against NAWSA’s advice, Paul pushed for a meeting with President Wilson, who brushed off the concerns
and pleas of the women during a brief meeting.
Paul’s plan for the suffragists differed so much from NAWSA’s plan, that she broke away from NAWSA
and started the National Women’s Party with the support of famous Americans such as Helen Keller. The National
Women’s Party urged people not to vote for Wilson or any Democrat until they endorsed and supported women’s
right to vote. Paul argued that just like early American colonists, women faced “taxation without representation.”
Paul argued that women were being treated like children; they were being told to obey without being able to
express their political views through the power to vote. Paul staged many non-violent, public protests to teach
more Americans that women were second class citizens under U.S. law.
The National Women’s Party (NWP) was the first organization ever to stage a picket line (protest) outside
of the White House in January of 1917. The NWP pledged to stay out in front of the White House everyday from
dawn till dusk until a Constitutional Amendment granting women the right to vote was passed. President Wilson
continued to ignore the suffragists as America moved closer and closer to entering World War One. Wilson did
however, publicly state that it was necessary for Americans to fight for those in Europe who were being oppressed
and had no voice in government. The women were surprised by the irony of Wilson’s words. He was willing to
stand up for the Europeans who were being oppressed overseas, but unwilling to do the same for American women.
The NWP took Wilson’s words and applied them to the oppression that they faced at the hands of the American
government. They posted these words on picket signs and read them aloud outside of the White House.
After America entered World War One, the protesting suffragists were arrested for “obstructing traffic” a
false charge that was upheld by the courts. The women were ordered to pay a fine of ten dollars or to serve 60 days
in the Occoquarn Correctional Facility. Burns refused to pay the fine, saying it would be an admission of guilt. She
and many other women (of all different ages and backgrounds were thrown in prison – mothers, daughters, rich,
poor, young and old). The conditions in the prison were horrendous. The women were beaten and harassed by the
warden and his guards. Despite these conditions, the women stuck to their cause and stuck together. Paul
eventually went on a hunger strike, sighting an old Irish Tactic, where those who were treated unjustly would starve
themselves on their oppressor’s door until they were given their rights. By starving herself, Paul hoped to shame
the American Government. While in prison, Paul and the other women were denied all of their legal rights,
including the right to see lawyers.
Paul was eventually tied down and force-fed causing her great physical pain, but no one knew of her plight.
When a Senator whose wife was being held visited her in the prison she slipped him a note telling of Paul’s story.
The Senator gave the story to the Washington Post who published the tale. Fearing the shame this event would
bring upon the United States, the government ordered the women freed. The NWP used this ordeal to pressure
Congress into voting on the 19th Amendment (which gave women the right to vote). The 19th Amendment was
ratified on August 18, 1920. The story of Alice Paul and her fellow suffragists is a story not often recognized by
most historians, but her struggle was an important step in women obtaining the right to vote in the United States.
Photograph of suffragists protesting outside of the White House in 1917