Founding Feminists: November 26, 1917

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.


There seems to be some serious negotiating going on behind the scenes, even though there were no official announcements or outward signs of activity at Washington, D.C.’s District Jail today, where the suffrage prisoners are being held.

In fact, though Alice Paul has refused food since November 5th, and been force-fed three times a day since the 8th, it appears to be the Wilson Administration that’s in a rapidly weakening condition and eager to find a compromise. President Wilson may even be ready to give in to Paul’s non-negotiable demand that he endorse and work for passage of the Susan B. Anthony (nationwide woman suffrage) Amendment.

There are reports circulating late tonight that David Lawrence, a well-known journalist with close and friendly ties to the Administration, was granted a private, nighttime jailhouse visit with the usually isolated Alice Paul, leader of the “Silent Sentinels” who picket for suffrage by standing along the White House fence holding huge banners.

Lawrence is said to have addressed the issue of “political prisoner” status first, since denial of that status was the original reason for the hunger strike that currently involves at least 19 suffragists:

The Administration could very easily hire a comfortable house in Washington and detain you all there, but don’t you see that your demand to be treated as ‘political prisoners’ is infinitely more difficult to grant than to give you a Federal suffrage amendment? If we give you these privileges we shall have to extend them to conscientious objectors and to all prisoners now confined for political opinions. This the Administration cannot do.

1456696_10201438252581798_1348574917_nThough the conversation started out like just another futile attempt to get Alice Paul to give in, the tone soon changed, due to the fact that public sympathy has recently begun turning in favor of the “Silent Sentinel” White House pickets now that their ordeals in Occoquan Workhouse and the District Jail have become widely known. Faced with the prospect of being blamed for so many women either staving themselves to death or undergoing the torture of force-feeding, the Administration seems to have offered a compromise that came close to a surrender on their part. Lawrence is said to have asked Paul: “Suppose the Administration should pass the amendment through one house of Congress next session and go to the country in the 1918 elections on that record, and if sustained in it, pass it through the other house a year from now. Would you then agree to abandon picketing?”

Never willing to compromise, and not about to throw away her trump card by promising that the National Woman’s Party will discontinue picketing, Alice Paul is said to have answered: “Nothing short of passage of the amendment through Congress will end our agitation.” The rest of the hunger strikers appear equally resolute, and willing to face the consequences of continued starvation – or force-feeding. That form of legalized torture has already been imposed on Rose Winslow, Lucy Burns, Dora Lewis and Kate Heffelfinger in addition to Alice Paul.

So, we may soon see whether the Wilson Administration will finally give up trying to stop the “Silent Sentinels” by imprisoning these peaceful pickets and inflicting force-feeding on those who protest their unjust treatment by refusing food. Should he switch to performing acts of good faith that will prove he is as sincere about bringing democracy to the women of his own country as he is about bringing it to the rest of the world, then – and only then – will he no longer see pickets bearing banners with quotes from his own speeches praising the fundamental right of people to elect their own leaders, or asking, “MR. PRESIDENT, HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?” and “MR. PRESIDENT, WHAT WILL YOU DO FOR WOMAN SUFFRAGE?”

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