Founding Feminists: September 11, 1917

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.


Today in Washington, D.C., National Woman’s Party members celebrated the courage and commitment of their White House pickets, while more traditional “Votes for Women” advocates around the country spent the day expressing optimism about the future of the cause, despite yesterday’s overwhelming defeat of a suffrage referendum in Maine.

Six “Silent Sentinels” who had been serving time in Virginia’s infamous Occoquan Workhouse for picketing President Wilson by standing along the White House fence with large, colorful banners, were honored with a banquet earlier this evening at Cameron House, headquarters of the National Woman’s Party. The picketing has been going on since January 10th to point out President Wilson’s hypocrisy in vigorously campaigning for democracy around the world while refusing to help bring democracy to the women of America by using his influence with the Democratic majority in Congress to pass the Susan B. Anthony (nationwide woman suffrage) Amendment so it can be sent to the States for ratification.

via Wikimedia
Lucy Burns during a recent prison term in Occoquan Workhouse. via Wikimedia

Over the past eight months, pickets have endured extreme cold and heavy snow, then rain, heat and humidity, criticism from more conservative suffragists, attacks by mobs, and finally arrests and lengthy sentences in the harshest of prisons. But tonight was a time to celebrate the freedom – temporary as it probably is – of six of the many who have been willing to endure imprisonment now so that women may vote in the future.

Alva Belmont, one of the principal speakers, left no doubt about her feelings toward the Wilson Administration or the courts, as she praised the pickets just hours after their release:

We come together tonight to honor the gallant six who have so bravely endured persecution at the hands of the Government, which has used its power to oppress women instead of liberating them. The present undemocratic Administration, on technical and unproved charges, and in court trials, which have been a bitter travesty on justice, has dared to imprison American women of patriotism and distinction in a filthy workhouse, in order to attempt to suppress the insistent demand of women for their political freedom.

An Administration which could be stupid and vicious enough to meet this appeal by such medieval methods proves that it is hostile to the liberal movements of the world, and that it is trying to smother the needs of democracy at home. Such an Administration, if it does not cease its cowardly persecution should be shorn of power in the next Congressional election.

The news from Maine, where a suffrage referendum was defeated by a 2-1 margin yesterday, was not being celebrated, of course. Local suffragists fought a good campaign, distributing 1,500,000 leaflets – 10 for every eligible voter – and Deborah Knox Livingston traveled uncountable numbers of miles around the State speaking and raising money. But there was never that much hope for a victory in Maine’s first suffrage referendum due to the short time between the measure being placed on the ballot and Election Day, as well as the State’s basic conservatism. The very low turnout may also have been a factor.

But today, suffragists are still optimistic about New York State’s suffrage referendum coming up on November 6th. New York and Maine are very different, and should produce opposite results. According to Carrie Chapman Catt:

A good deal of suffrage education has been inculcated that will count toward future victory. We have learned to take what looks like failure as the forerunner of success. It was a good deal to expect Maine to go pro-suffrage in a first campaign. Even in the Western States it has taken several campaigns to win. I understand that a Maine ‘anti’ hopes the question is settled in Maine for a long time to come, but the suffrage question is never settled until it is settled affirmatively. It is true that there probably will never be another campaign in Maine except for the purpose of ratification. The Federal suffrage amendment is surely going to pass and soon. The effect of every State’s repudiation of the suffrage plank in the platforms of all political parties can serve only to focus the effort of the National American Woman Suffrage Association anew upon the Federal route to the suffrage goal. More and more our work concentrates on Washington as the immediate focal point.

Dudley Field Malone, who resigned his appointive position as Collector of Customs for the Port of New York to protest the Wilson Administration’s inaction on suffrage, and who has acted as legal counsel for the pickets, agreed that the days of making massive efforts for State referenda are probably past:

It took the liberal and progressive elements of men and women in Maine nearly twenty years before they were permitted to put a suffrage amendment to the voters of that State, and a similar suffrage amendment may not be submitted to the electorate for twenty years more because of antique political methods in Maine. In a democratic republic this is a denial of justice and democracy, without which there would be no progress. The situation in Maine proves that the most just and speedy way to enfranchise all the women of the country is by the passing of the Federal suffrage amendment through Congress.

Anti-suffragists are expressing their usual optimism that the battle is over. Alice Hill Chittenden, President of the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage said:

Woman suffrage has not carried a single State through popular election since 1914, when the two small States of Montana and Nevada extended suffrage to women, and since that date has been defeated in twelve States, namely, South Dakota, Ohio, North Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, Iowa, and West Virginia, Maine yesterday making the twelfth.

The total majority for suffrage in Nevada and Montana amounted to about 7,000. The results in Maine point the way to defeat of woman suffrage in New York on November 6th. Most people regard the question of woman suffrage as an intrusion at this time, when the whole mind and heart of the nation is engrossed in a great war upon which we have entered. This is a time when the manpower of Government is needed ; that is the one power which can enforce law. I cannot believe the men of New York State will make the fatal mistake of adding to the electorate at this critical time some two million votes.

But despite the latest obituary for the suffrage movement by its critics, it’s healthier than ever. In the Empire State the campaign has been large, well-funded, and running on a continuous basis since the 1915 referendum’s defeat. And regardless of how the New York contest may come out, women are already a substantial voting bloc in the Western States where they have won full voting rights.

The addition of the element of militance by the National Woman’s Party may be the final ingredient to success, however. Pressure on President Wilson to do something meaningful to help suffrage is growing, as is sympathy for the women who have been jailed for simply exercising their right to peacefully protest against being excluded from the political process for no reason other than their sex.

Victory may not be at hand, but it is in sight, and now that there is a consensus among even conservative suffrage organizations that Alice Paul was right years ago about the Susan B. Anthony Amendment being the only practical route to nationwide suffrage, we know how victory will come about, so the only question is when.

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