Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.
48 members of the National Woman’s Party were arrested today when they attempted to hold a suffrage rally at the Lafayette Monument in Lafayette Park, across from the White House.
The demonstration began when Hazel Hunkins, carrying an American flag, led 100 suffragists bearing the purple, white and gold banners of the N.W.P. on a march from their headquarters at 14 Jackson Street, to the park.
The purpose of the rally was to protest the Senate’s inaction on the Susan B. Anthony (nationwide woman suffrage) Amendment, and the fact that President Wilson has not yet applied the full weight of his influence to gaining the amendment’s passage.
The House passed the Anthony Amendment on January 10th by 274-136, just over the 2/3 necessary, so only concurrence by 2/3 of the Senate (64 of 96 Senators) is now needed to send the amendment to the State legislatures for ratification by 36 out of 48. Today was chosen for the rally because it is the birthday of the late Inez Milholland Boissevain, an N.W.P. activist who collapsed on stage during a grueling speaking tour of the West in 1916, and died soon after at the age of 30.
Today’s first speaker was Dora Lewis, but moments after she began to speak, while on the steps of the statue, she was seized by police officers, arrested and dragged off. She was immediately replaced by another speaker, who was also arrested, and the pattern continued. Lavinia Dock, a veteran of “General” Rosalie Jones’ legendary suffrage hikes, tried to create a diversion by singing “America,” and was arrested.
The demonstrators then began to circle Lafayette’s statue while the police looked through a book of park regulations trying to find something to charge them with. Police then began making mass arrests of those in the park for “holding a meeting without a permit,” “congregating in the park,” and “climbing on a statue.” Though she was on the sidewalk, Alice Paul was arrested as well, when one of the officers pointed to her and said: “There’s the leader – get her !” Tonight she said:
It is intolerable that American women cannot ask for a share of the democracy for which we are fighting without having their speakers and even their listeners arrested. The world will look with amazement upon the spectacle. We are ashamed for our nation.
The reaction of the crowd to the demonstration was mixed. Some listeners applauded when the suffragists tried to speak, others applauded when the orators were arrested and taken away.
Mass arrests of suffragists have been tried before. Last year many “Silent Sentinels” were arrested for allegedly “blocking traffic” on the wide sidewalk in front of the White House, and a number of them served time in the District Jail or Virginia’s infamous Occoquan Workhouse. Some went on hunger strikes and a few, such as Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, endured force-feeding. But on March 4th of this year, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals reversed all their convictions and declared the actions of the “Silent Sentinels” were legal. They specifically said that:
So far as the information enlightens us, the defendants may have assembled for a perfectly lawful purpose, and though to a degree obstructing the sidewalk, not be guilty of any offense … It would hardly be contended that if the defendants had met on one of the spacious sidewalks of Pennsylvania Avenue to conduct a peaceable conversation, though to a degree inconveniencing pedestrians, they would be guilty under the statute of crowding and obstructing the free use of the walk …. The statute does not condemn the mere act of assembling on the street, but prohibits assembling and congregating coupled with the doing of forbidden acts.
So, it remains to be seen if today’s equally ridiculous charges stand up. But whether they do or not, National Woman’s Party members will not give up their right to peacefully protest the failure of any governmental body or official to do what they can to assure the female half of the population the right of equal suffrage.