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Suffragette City: Meet the Young Women Behind the Suffrage Movement in the U.S.

by BUST Magazine

A bike messenger for the National Woman’s Party, which was staffed entirely by women

For half a century, women had been politely agitating for suffrage. Then some fearless young radicals came along who weren’t afraid to make some noise—even if it meant serving prison time. Seven years later, they had won the right to vote

It was more than a parade; it was a pageant. On March 13, 1913, thousands of women descended on Washington, D.C. to demand the right to vote. Led by a strikingly beautiful woman clad in a white cape and riding a pure white horse, the parade was spectacular with the colors of suffrage—purple, white, and gold. Included in the march was a contingent of women from countries where women could already vote—including New Zealand, Norway, and Finland—and then the “Pioneers,” who had long struggled for the right to cast a ballot. There were groups of working women, dressed in the attire of their professions: nurses, farmers, homemakers, doctors, pharmacists, actresses, librarians, and women wearing the academic gowns of their colleges. Groupings of women from different states followed, and a section of male supporters brought up the rear. There were 10 bands, 6 golden chariots, and 26 floats. As The New York Times reported, “It was an astonishing demonstration.” All in all, over 10,000 women and men marched before over half a million spectators in what was called the “Woman Suffrage Procession.”

“There had never been a procession of women—at least nobody had ever seen it. Nobody ever dreamt of women doing such a thing,” recounted Alice Paul, the 28-year-old co-organizer of the parade.

But not everyone in the crowd was cheering. 

 resize 5Scene from parade

In town for the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson the following day, a good number of men were among the observers, and their sympathies did not lie with the suffragists. At first the men merely heckled the marchers, shouting, “Where are your skirts?” and calling the men who marched beside them “Henpecko!” Then it became uglier, as the women endured “indecent epithets,” were spit on, and had lit cigar butts thrown at them. The chaos grew as the crowd closed in on the women so that only a single file of marchers could pass through, until finally, violence broke out with bystanders slapping and beating the women. Throughout the mayhem, the police stood back, and newspapers reported that some even “seemed to enjoy the ribald jokes” being flung by the hecklers. In the end, over 100 marchers were taken to the hospital, and hundreds more were hurt. Two ambulances ferried the injured for six hours straight, and were sometimes purposely impeded by the rowdy crowd. “Mob Hurts 300 Suffragists at Capital Parade!” blared The New York Evening Journal

Nevertheless, the marchers persisted through the riot and many made it to the end of their route. And despite the violence, the parade was a success. “Pageant Crowd Largest Washington Has Ever Seen,” The New York Herald wrote, “Call it curiosity, call it sympathy, call it opposition; the fact remains that the suffrage parade and pageant here today attracted a greater crowd than any inaugural ever did. Incoming and outgoing presidents were almost ignored. Only a few hundred persons saw Mr. Wilson’s advertised arrival at his hotel; within six blocks, 50,000 were waiting for the suffragists.” Even the mayhem worked in the marchers’ favor. “Capital Mobs Made Converts to Suffrage” announced The New York Tribune.

The parade marked a turning point in the fight for the right to vote. Every year for 40 years, a constitutional amendment affording women the right to vote had been introduced into Congress, and every year it had been defeated. Now, thanks to the efforts of a new generation of young, radical suffragists, all of that was about to change. Media-savvy in a way their predecessors weren’t, they had carefully timed the parade to fall on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration to protest his stance against allowing women voting rights, and to attract the largest crowds. And their efforts had paid off. Now they had the media spotlight and the sympathy of a nation. And within seven years of this, their first gesture of activism, they had won women the right to vote. 

 resize 7Lucy Burns, courtesy of National Women’s Party

Getting the National Woman’s Party Started

The Woman Suffrage Procession was the brainchild of two young women—Alice Paul and her friend, the 34-year-old Lucy Burns. Born in Moorestown, New Jersey in 1885, Paul’s upbringing was so strictly Quaker that there wasn’t any dancing or music in her childhood. Burns was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1879, as the fourth of eight children in a family that strongly supported educating both sexes.

Typical of many young suffragists at the time, both Paul and Burns were well educated—Burns, a fiery redhead, graduated from Vassar, and Paul held a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. As Christine Lunardini writes in From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights, “These were the new suffragists: women who were better educated, more career-oriented, younger, less apt to be married, and more cosmopolitan than their counterparts of the previous generation.”

The two feisty women met at a police station in England in 1909 after both were arrested while demonstrating for women’s suffrage, and soon became close friends. At that time, England was a hotbed for militant suffrage activism, and as Paul called it, the “storm center of our movement.” The action, advancement, and adventure of the British suffrage movement drew many young American women across the ocean to lend a hand and pick up tactics. And pick up tactics they did. “I was clapped into jail three times while in England,” Paul later reported, “and during my first and second terms I refused to eat. When the forcible feeding was ordered, I was bound with sheets and sat upon bodily by a fat murderess, whose duty it was to keep me still. Then the prison doctor placed a rubber tube up my nostrils and pumped liquid food through it into the stomach.”

 resize 4Parade program

Fueled by her experiences in England, Paul returned to the States determined to kick things up a notch. Impatient with the slow, methodical push to win women the right to vote, state by state, that the old guard was using, Paul visited Lucy Burns at her home in Long Island to plan ways to break through the suffrage stagnation in the United States. For one thing, they wanted to demand the passage of a constitutional amendment that would give all women the right to vote, rather than fighting for suffrage one state at a time. For another, they were prepared to apply the militant tactics and strategies they’d learned in England to the cause. 

After careful consideration, Paul and Burns decided to start their American activism working within the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), a group which had been formed in 1890 through a merger of organizations founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. But NAWSA was far from a perfect fit. When Paul and Burns proposed their idea for media-grabbing action, it was at first immediately rejected by the organization, who favored polite negotiation and a state’s rights strategy. Eventually, however, the proposal was accepted, although Paul and Burns were told they would have to raise their own funds for the event. Undaunted, they put together a committee of mainly young, well-educated women, which would later be known as the Congressional Union (CU). Funds were raised, an office in Washington, D.C. was opened, and the committee’s activities flourished. 

 resize 1119-year-old suffragist starts spreading the news

Although the young upstarts were making headway, the old guard was less than pleased. The tactics that the younger women were using were both distasteful and somewhat foreboding to many of the long-term members. NAWSA leader Carrie Chapman Catt alleged that the group had asked for donations under false pretenses, even though the leaders themselves had required the younger women to raise their own funds. Eventually, Paul and Burns, together with their followers, decided that they’d had enough. Separating from NAWSA, the young suffragists went on a national speaking tour. At an event in Los Angeles, Inez Milholland Boissevain, the stunning icon of the suffrage parade who rode at the front of the procession on a white horse, took the stage. “Mr. President, how much longer must women wait for liberty?” she asked the crowd. At the word “liberty,” she is reported to have fainted. Although she was rushed to the hospital, she died at the age of 30 on November 25, 1916, a martyr for the cause. 

The women grieved and regrouped. Paul soon realized that an independent political party was needed, and organized the first National Woman’s Party (NWP) convention in Chicago in the summer of 1916. “With the assembling of more than 1,000 women—1,200 to be exact—from all parts of the United States there was born last night at the Blackstone theater the first woman’s party in the world,” The Chicago Tribune reported. Afterwards, Paul set up an office for the National Woman’s Party in Washington, D.C. The Suffragist, the NWP newspaper, reported that membership was “open to all women who, regarding woman suffrage as the foremost political issue of the day, will support it irrespective of the interests of any national political party. Entrance fee: 25 cents.?There are no dues.” Another of the group’s policies was that it be staffed by women only. In fact, when Alva Belmont gave the Old Brick Capitol for use as the NWP Headquarters, she had it written into the deed that should the NWP ever pay a man to work for the organization, ownership of the property would revert back to her family.

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The Young Are at the Gates!

On January 9, 1917, 300 women from the NWP met with President Wilson requesting that he push for a federal suffrage amendment. They were politely rebuffed. On January 10, 1917, the group picketed the White House gates, carrying bold banners in the suffrage colors, asking, “Mr. President—What Will You Do For Woman Suffrage?” “Their purpose is to make it impossible for the President to enter or leave the White House without encountering a sentinel bearing some device pleading the suffrage cause,” The Washington Post reported.

The picketing, controversial as it was, began as a peaceful affair—the president tipped his hat to the women as he passed through the gates, even inviting them in for hot tea and coffee on one particularly cold day. But when America entered World War I on April 6, 1917, the sympathies for the suffragists changed. Many saw the picketing of a wartime president as unpatriotic. But the young women would not allow a war to stand in the way of their efforts. They began using President Wilson’s own words from his speeches in their banners. One read: “We shall fight for the things which we have always held nearest our hearts—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments—President Wilson’s War Message, April 2, 1917.”

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On June 20, 1917, a Russian delegation came to the White House to discuss the war. Lucy Burns and Dora Lewis stood outside the White House with a banner directed to the Russian delegation. “President Wilson and Envoy Root are deceiving Russia. They say, ‘We are a democracy. Help us to win the war so that democracies may survive.’ We women of America tell you that America is not a democracy. Twenty million women are denied the right to vote.” The crowds watching the picketers were incensed and tore apart the banners while the police stood aside and did nothing to stop the violence. Word of the struggle was splashed on newspapers across the country. But Paul was unapologetic, and sent a press release in her defense. “It is those who deny justice, and not those who demand it, who embarrass the country in its international relations,” she wrote. 

Arresting Developments

Soon after the Russian incident, the arrests began. The women were warned by the chief of police that they would be arrested if the picketing continued—even though the right to picket was permitted by a pre-existing act of Congress. Even NAWSA disapproved of NWP’s tactics. “There was a big division in the women’s movement, you see, when they sent this round robin from so many influential women…to demand that we stop the picketing, and the White House had the chief of police call us up,” recounted Paul. “That’s when our militancy really began. This going out and standing there with our beautiful banners wasn’t anything very militant. But this really was, I would say, the beginning of the militancy.” The women continued picketing despite the threats.

Katherine Morey, writing in The Suffragist, recounted what happened next. “On Friday morning Miss Burns and I, about to start for the White House, saw rows of policemen before our gates and all the way up and down the street. We were astonished; but not so astonished as the police, when half an hour later they looked toward the White House and saw Miss Burns and me stationed before the gate holding a great banner between us. After a minute the White House guards came over to us and demanded that we give up our banner. We refused, and were arrested.”

Burns and Paul wanted to demand the passage of a constitutional amendment that would give all women the right to vote, rather than fighting for suffrage one state at a time. 

The first arrests led to others. Nearly 30 women were arrested while picketing at the White House between June 22 and June 26, but all were released shortly after their arrest. Then, on June 27th, six women went on trial for “obstructing traffic” and were ordered to pay $25 or stay in jail for three days. The women chose jail. The arrests continued, and on July 14th, 16 women were arrested and sentenced to 60 days in prison at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia.

Finally, on August 14th, the situation reached a boiling point. In an effort to point out the contradiction that Wilson was ready to go to war to defend the right of Germans to self-government, but still wouldn’t allow 20 million women the right to vote, the suffragists carried a banner that read, “Kaiser Wilson: Take the Beam Out of Your Own Eye.” As Eleanor Clift writes in her book, Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment, “Anti-German sentiment was so strong in the United States during World War I that orchestras refused to play Beethoven, sauerkraut was renamed liberty cabbage, and frankfurters became hot dogs. Invoking the phrase ‘Kaiser Wilson’ was like pouring kerosene on a fire.”

That banner inspired another riot, bigger than the first. “Twenty-two lettered banners and fourteen tri-color flags destroyed by a mob led by sailors, government clerks, and roughs. Large American flag and large Woman’s Party flag, flying at headquarters, torn down by sailors. Eggs and tomatoes thrown at headquarters. Shot fired through upper window. Sailors, on porch of headquarters, strike Miss Virginia Arnold, Miss Lucy Burns, Miss Georgiana Sturges, trying to protect their property. Three police officers watch the attack with no offer of help,” reported The Suffragist.

 resize 1Filing at the National Woman’s Party HQ

In spite of this, the women continued to picket, get arrested, and thrown in jail. The conditions they faced in prison were harsh: many suffragists were put on a diet of bread and water for being rude to the guards. A sympathetic prison matron even submitted an affidavit deploring their unsanitary conditions and worm-infested food. Some suffragists took the worms they found floating in their soup and sent them to the prison warden on a spoon. Lucy Burns demanded an investigation of the government workhouse in an open letter. “The water they drink is kept in an open pail… The prisoners frequently dip the drinking cup directly into the pail. The same piece of soap is used for every prisoner. On one occasion [the prisoners] heard Superintendent Whittaker kicking a woman in the next room. They heard Whittaker’s voice, the sound of the blows, and the woman’s cries. I lay these facts before you with the knowledge that you will be glad to have the fullest possible information given…”

The American public was startled by the undignified treatment of the women, and the issue gained momentum, but the work of the suffragists was far from finished.

Hunger Strikes in America

As the main strategist and media coordinator, Alice Paul stayed out of prison with the idea that she should continue to stay out until it was absolutely necessary. She was soon needed. When Congress still hadn’t brought up the suffrage amendment on the last day of the emergency war session, Paul and nearly a dozen other women protested at the White House gates and were promptly arrested. They were given a suspended sentence on October 6th. With the amendment still stalled, Paul took to the gates again on October 20th with a banner that quoted Wilson’s promotion of the second Liberty Bond loan in 1917 that read, “The time has come to conquer or submit. For us there can be but one choice. We have made it.” 

Paul got serious jail time—seven months in prison. “I am being imprisoned not because I obstructed traffic, but because I pointed out to President Wilson the fact that he is obstructing the progress of justice and democracy at home while Americans fight for it abroad!” she yelled to onlookers as she was being led off to jail.

 resize 3College day on the picket line

Within a matter of weeks, most of the prisoners were released, but Paul was one of the few women left in jail. Paul and Rose Winslow then started a hunger strike that the authorities tried to thwart with forced tube feedings three times a day, sleep deprivation, and threats of commitment to a mental institution. In a secret prison-journal entry, Rose Winslow described the situation. “My fainting probably means nothing except that I am not strong after these weeks. Alice Paul is in the psychopathic ward. She dreaded forcible feeding frightfully, and I hate to think how she must be feeling. I have a nervous time of it, gasping a long time afterward, and my stomach rejecting during the process. I spent a bad, restless night, but otherwise I am all right. The poor soul who fed me got liberally besprinkled during the process. I heard myself making the most hideous sounds…This morning, but for an astounding tiredness, I am all right. I am waiting to see what happens when the President realizes that brutal bullying isn’t quite a statesmanlike method for settling a demand for justice at home.” 

The hunger strike spread through the prison as others joined Paul in solidarity. At the same time, another 41 women were arrested, tried, and sent to jail for picketing the White House. The first night in prison was later remembered as the “Night of Terror,” because the warden and guards were verbally and physically abusive to the new inmates. Mary A. Nolan, one of the older suffragists at 73 years old, described her experience that night: “Suddenly the door literally burst open and Whittaker rushed in like a tornado; some men followed him. We could see crowds of them on the porch. They were not in uniform. They had seemed to come in—and in—and in…I was jerked down the steps and away into the dark…I saw Dorothy Day brought in. She is a very slight girl. The two men were twisting her arms above her head. Then suddenly they lifted her up and banged her down over the arm of an iron bench—twice. As they ran past, she was lying there with her arms out, and I heard one of the men yell, ‘The suffrager! My mother ain’t no suffrager! I’ll put you through hell!’”

A Soul is Worth More than Fried Chicken

These women joined the hunger strike and were offered fried chicken and salad to coax them to eat after three days without food. Burns, true to her fiery nature, passed a note to the other prisoners that read, “I think this riotous feast which has just passed our doors is the last effort of the institution to dislodge all of us who can be dislodged. They think there is nothing in our souls above fried chicken.”

A court hearing was finally held to address the women’s prison treatment. “The appearance of the women as they filed into the court was touching in the extreme,” reported The Suffragist. “Some of them could hardly walk and were supported by the younger and stronger women. All were worn and pale, and it was some moments before they ceased to watch the warden under whose care they had suffered such indignities and cruelties without apprehension.” After seeing that the women were not going to be dissuaded from their hunger strike, and with the women’s health and lives in jeopardy, the White House ordered the women released.“The administration has found that it dare not imprison American women for asking for a share in the democracy for which we are fighting…We are bearing on the American tradition, living up to the American spirit. Americans must sympathize, and grant us victory,” declared Paul.

 resize 6Picketing the White House

And sympathize they did. President Wilson had finally fully come around and was beginning to use his office to advance the cause. Politicians took notice, and on January 10, 1918, the House passed the suffrage amendment 274 to 136—just one year after the women carried their first pickets at the White House gate. But the effort was stalled in the Senate. 

The women kept up their presence in the media around the nation. One tactic was to take a railroad car, called the “Pri­son Special,” on a cross-country trip. Garbed in prison uniforms, suffragists who had spent time in jail spoke about their experiences to local audiences. It caused quite a stir, and the crowds who came out to see the spectacle of rebellious suffragists went on to support suffrage, cabling their outrage to the president and Con­gress.

We Are the Champions

Eventually, the fight was won. On May 19, 1919, President Wilson requested a special session of Congress to consider the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, and the House passed the amendment by 304 to 89 on May 21st. On June 4, 1919, it passed the Senate by a vote of 66 to 30. 

The reaction of the women who had fought so hard to arrive at that very moment couldn’t have been more anticlimactic. They were tired. “Everyone knew what the end would be now. It was all very dull,” wrote Maude Younger. “I don’t want to do anything more; I don’t want to be on any board or any committee or have anything more to do, because I think we have done all this for women and we have sacrificed everything we possessed for them,” a satisfied but exhausted Lucy Burns later said. “Let them fight for it now.”

 resize 10Hunger strikers being led away from prison

In 1920, after the 19th Amendment was ratified by 36 states, American women were able to vote for the first time in a presidential election. “All women of the United States are now entitled to vote in the coming election on the same basis as men,” Alice Paul was quoted as stating in The New York Times. “In state and national legislation, as well as in other fields, women are not yet on an equal basis with men. The vote will make it infinitely easier for them to end all discriminations, and they will use the vote toward that end.” 

 resizeStanding before the “celebratory banner”?she sewed herself, Alice Paul toasts the ratification of the 19th Amendment


By Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner
All photographs: courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division except when noted


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2004 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

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