Today in History

Today in History: August 28

Picketing for Suffrage

The first picket line
The First Picket Line
February, 1917.
By Popular Demand: "Votes for Women" Suffrage Pictures, 1850-1920

Ten suffragists were arrested on August 28, 1917, as they picketed the White House. The protesters were there in an effort to pressure President Woodrow Wilson to support the proposed "Anthony amendment" to the Constitution that would guarantee women the right to vote. Daily picketing began on January 10, 1917. During that year, more than 1,000 women from across the country joined the picket line outside the White House. Between June and November, 218 protestors from 26 states were arrested and charged with "obstructing sidewalk traffic."  Of those arrested, 97 spent time in either the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia or in the District of Columbia jail. Initially, protestors stood silently, holding placards inscribed with relatively tame messages such as "Mr. President, what will you do for Woman Suffrage?" and "How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?" President Wilson maintained decorum, greeting the protestors with a tip of the hat as he rode, his wife at his side, through the White House gates.

By late spring, the picketers brandished more provocative placards. They took advantage of the United States' April 6 entry into the war in Europe to press their case. Bystanders erupted in violence on June 20, when picketers met Russian envoys with signs that proclaimed the United States a democracy in name only.

The White House protest reflected a rift between the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), led by Carrie Chapman Catt, and the more confrontational National Woman's Party, led by former NAWSA member Alice Paul.

Having spent time in a British jail for her participation in suffrage protests in England, Paul was no stranger to confrontation or its potential value to a political movement. In "Alice Paul Talks," she describes her experience during a hunger strike, a tactic she later employed at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia:

Alice Paul
Alice Paul
By Popular Demand: "Votes for Women" Suffrage Pictures, 1850-1920

I resorted to the hunger strike method twice…When the forcible feeding was ordered I was taken from my bed, carried to another room and forced into a chair, bound with sheets and sat upon bodily by a fat murderer, whose duty it was to keep me still. Then the prison doctor, assisted by two woman attendants, placed a rubber tube up my nostrils and pumped liquid food through it into the stomach. Twice a day for a month, from November 1 to December 1, this was done.

"Alice Paul Talks,"
Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921

Influenced in part by the publicity generated by the White House pickets and subsequent arrests and forced feedings of women protestors, President Wilson lent his support to the suffrage amendment in January 1918. The amendment was approved by Congress shortly thereafter. Women achieved the right to vote with the August 18, 1920, ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which is commemorated by Women's Equality Day.

Learn more about the women's suffrage movement: