Reliving the Struggles for Women’s Rights

The Portrait Monument in the Capitol Rotunda depicting suffragist pioneers Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott. (Photo: Office of the Architect of the Capitol)

Parades, Pickets and Prison

By Glenda C. Booth

On June 4, 1919, the U.S. Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution to grant women the right to vote. It was the culmination of the first women’s rights movement begun at the 1848 Seneca Falls (NY) Convention, a 72-year campaign by dedicated (some said, “militant”) suffragists who had “engineered the greatest expansion of democracy on a single day the world had ever seen,” observed reporter and author Eleanor Clift. It took another year, until August 18, 1920, for 38 states to ratify the amendment.

Securing the right to vote took grassroots agitating, lobbying, media strategies, demonstrations and even imprisonment. “It is nothing to you today to be attending a meeting and at night. You can sign petitions and run for office,” said Kathleen Pablo, Turning Point Suffragist Memorial official. “The suffragists lived in a very different time. There was no glass ceiling. They were in a box, locked in tight.”

Pat Wirth, Executive Director, Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association, is leading the campaign to build a national memorial honoring the suffragists near the site where some were jailed for seeking the right to vote. (Photo courtesy of Pat Wirth)

Evidence of the suffragists’ story, much of it unsung, is scattered around the D.C. area. Although there are few marble monuments, plaques or markers, Washington was central to the suffragists’ success.

U. S. Supreme Court

In 1875, the U.S. Supreme Court in Minor v. Happersett decided that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution did not guarantee women the right to vote. Suffragists, including Paul and Susan B. Anthony, began to advocate for a constitutional amendment. The draft amendment read, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” It was introduced in Congress in 1878, failed, then introduced and failed in subsequent sessions until passage in 1919.

Pennsylvania Avenue

In 1913, some 5,000 to 8,000 women carrying banners proclaiming, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” marched from the Capitol up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House in the Woman Suffrage Procession. The drama of thousands of women, floats and marching bands led by Inez Milholland, the face of the suffrage movement, in flowing white robes astride a magnificent white horse and invoking the image of Joan of Arc, was bold and unprecedented. They were met with jeers, shoving and spitting, mostly from men who labeled them unwomanly, unsexed and shameless. Police stood idly by.

The parade upstaged President-elect Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. When he arrived at Union Station on parade day, the day before Inauguration Day, to be greeted by a mere handful of supporters, he asked, “Where are the people?” The answer: “On the avenue watching the suffragists’ parade.” Wilson claimed to have “no opinion” on women’s suffrage.

Exhibit of jailed suffragists being force fed in the Occoquan Workhouse, created by Judy Kelly, George Mason University student. (Photo: Glenda K. Booth)

The White House

In 1917, the National Woman’s Party employed a new tactic: the Silent Sentinels. Thousands of women wearing purple, gold and white sashes took turns standing silently near the White House north gate, in all weather, holding banners asking, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”

Wilson dawdled and dodged. Against the backdrop of U.S. involvement in World War I, the suffragists pointed out his hypocrisy in fighting for democracy abroad while denying it at home. He ultimately decided to support a suffrage amendment as “a necessary war measure.”

“…Remember the Ladies and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors…If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or Representation.”

Abigail Adams, in a 1776 letter to John Adams attending the Continental Congress

Historical Marker near the original Occoquan Workhouse describes how suffragists’ imprisonment. (Photo by Jane Barker)

The Turning Point — Jail

In 1917, hoping to intimidate the picketers, the Washington, D.C., police started arresting suffragists on the White House sidewalk for “obstructing traffic” and “holding a meeting on public grounds.”

From 1917 to 1919, some 200 women of all ages were arrested and more than 70 were hauled to the Occoquan Workhouse, 25 miles south in Fairfax County, which was then a “deserted wilderness.”

The women were jailed, beaten and fed mostly hard bread and maggot-laden soup. When some went on a hunger strike, the superintendent ordered that they be force fed so they would not die as martyrs.

Jailed for Freedom pin, presented by the National Women’s Party to every suffragist imprisoned for picketing the White House to demand the right to vote. (Photo Courtesy of the Alice Paul Institute)

On the night of November 15, 1917, known as the “Night of Terror,” prison officials moved many of the women out of dormitory quarters into jail cells shared with prostitutes, thieves and drunkards. Wardens dragged, beat and slammed the women into cells. One had a heart attack. Another, Lucy Burns, had her arms strapped to cell bars above her head all night.

But the women remained defiant. When demanded to pay a fine, two prisoners, Lucy Burns and Katherine More fired back: “Not a dollar of your fine shall we pay. To pay a fine would be an admission of guilt. We are innocent!” When word leaked about how they’d been treated, the experience became a turning point toward passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association is raising awareness and funds to create a memorial honoring the suffragists’ struggle. Today, a two-room Lucy Burns Museum displays photographs and objects associated with the movement and the suffragists’ incarceration.

Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, National Woman’s Party headquarters on Capitol Hill. (Photo: Glenda K. Booth)

Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument

On the corner of Second Street and Constitution Avenue, N.E., next to the Hart Senate Office Building and across from the Supreme Court and U.S. Capitol buildings, sits the Belmont-Paul National Monument, a three-story, brick house dating from 1800. The National Woman’s Party (NWP), founded in 1916 by Alice Paul, bought it in 1929 to be party headquarters.

Exhibits of memorabilia, banners and suffragists’ attire relate the history of a century-plus of activism for two Constitutional amendments, what eventually was the Nineteenth Amendment and the Equal Rights Amendment, which Congress passed in 1972 but has yet to be ratified. (In January, the Virginia House of Delegates once again refused to ratify it.)

U. S. Capitol

The “Portrait Monument,” a sculpture of suffragist pioneers Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott was created in 1921 by Adelaide Johnson, the “sculptor of the women’s movement.”

Dubbed by some, “Three Ladies in a Tub,” the sculpture sat in the Capitol basement for 76 years until 1997, when the National Woman’s Party convinced Congress to move it to the Capitol Rotunda.

A statue of Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin stands in the Capitol Statuary Hall. Rankin came from Montana and, in 1916 [before she could vote for herself], was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives. She advocated women’s rights and peace. Her statue didn’t make it to Statuary Hall until 1985.

Attorney Inez Milholland Boissevain, wearing white cape, seated on white horse ready to lead the National American Woman Suffrage Association parade organized by Alice Paul, March 3, 1913, Washington, D.C. (Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Congressional Cemetery

Among 67,000 burials in the 35-acre Congressional Cemetery are the graves of just eight known suffragists, among them: Winifred Mallon, a founder of the Women’s National Press Club; Marguerite Dupont Lee, of the Delaware DuPont family; and sculptor Adelaide Johnson. Also Belva Lockwood, the first women licensed to practice law in D.C., a frequent testifier before Congress, the first woman admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court bar and, in 1884, the first woman to run on a major party ticket as a presidential candidate for the Equal Rights Party.

Dr. Kate Waller Barrett

Alexandria also claim’s credit for at least one outstanding suffragist. Dr. Kate Waller Barrett championed many reforms. In 1909, a widow and mother of six, she helped found the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia and took up the women’s-right-to-vote cause. Dr. Barrett was a charter member and vice president of the League of Women Voters, a force behind creating the American Legion Auxiliary, active in the National Congress of Mothers, the Parent-Teacher Association, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She was asked to consider running for Governor of Virginia, but declined.