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U.S. National Woman's Party campaigns for suffrage, 1914-1920
When Alice Paul emerged into the somewhat stagnant scene of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association’s (NAWSA) campaign for the right to vote in 1912, the energy and momentum of the movement surged. Having just come from Britain where women were fighting a similar battle in which they were imprisoned, partaking in hunger strikes and smashing windows, NAWSA’s polite pleading over a cup of tea with political leaders and legislators was not only ineffective in the eyes of Paul and other emerging women leaders, it was a blow to the dignity of women to request basic human rights. And therefore, Paul began to demand them.
Heading the Congressional Union committee of NAWSA, Paul and Lucy Burns stepped up as leaders in a dramatic way. To begin, they organized a march in Washington, DC, in which 8,000 women partook, complete with costumes, banners, and a pageant. The idea was to portray women, such a Joan of Arc and Sappho, as strong, noble and beautiful. It was during this parade, in which opponents of the campaigners shouted insults and nearly broke into riots while police stood idly by, that the women began to realize the intensity of the opposition.
Shortly after the parade in 1913, the Congressional Union split from NAWSA over disagreements in tactics and their desire to administer federal as opposed to state pressure. The Congressional Union then took the name the National Women’s Party and began their separate campaign for the passage of the 19th amendment. The women waged struggle, sending delegations to the U.S. capital to lobby for support, while leaders began to speak in the streets to rally more women to the cause. Through the use of forceful tactics such as large demonstrations, caravans riding across the U.S., mass petitions, and public burnings of Wilson’s speeches, the NWP successfully put women’s suffrage back to the forefront of political dialogue.
As national participation grew, Paul looked to ways of increasing pressure on President Wilson. In January of 1917 members of the National Women’s Party began picketing the White House. Everyday for the next 16 months women were at the gates with banners demanding the right to vote. In the first couple months of picketing Wilson assumed they would tire quickly and simply tipped his hat as he drove away. When the United States entered into World War I in April of 1917, to the surprise of many, the picketing continued. Believing that democracy should begin at home, the banners took a sharp turn, quoting Wilson’s words about protecting democracy to reveal his hypocrisy. Some boldly read “Kaiser Wilson.” As wartime patriotism escalated, these banners instigated many instances of violent responses from onlookers and officials looked for ways to put an end to the demonstrations.
Picketers were arrested on the charge of “obstructing traffic,” and prisons began to fill with suffragettes. Women continued to picket knowing their fate and were sentenced to increasingly longer prison terms. Most refused to work and many began a hunger strike initiated by Paul in protest of their imprisonment. The Occoquan workhouse was notorious for bad conditions but the suffragettes were subjected to particularly harsh treatment there, including instances of beatings, worm infested food, and inhumane force feedings. When the public became aware of the women’s treatment, sympathy and support for the campaign swelled and many picketers were released. Under national pressure, Wilson began to publicly support women’s suffrage as a war time measure and urged the passage of the 19th amendment. On June 4, 1920, the amendment passed through the House and Senate. On August 18, Tennessee became the needed 36th state for ratification. On November 2, 1920, women across the country voted for the first time. The NWP continued to fight for women’s equality by proposing the Equal Rights Amendment for which Paul dedicated her life to until her death in 1977.