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Today in 1918: Suffragists Occupy the Senate

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.

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The National Woman’s Party is known for its bold actions, but today’s attempt to briefly occupy the Senate as a colorful protest of that body’s recent rejection of the Susan B. Anthony (nationwide woman suffrage) Amendment was its most militant tactic yet.

As announced day before yesterday:

Monday noon, upon the convening of the United States Senate, a group of women will form upon the plaza in front of the Capitol and, with no banner other than the American flag at their head and the tricolor of women’s freedom, will march up the Senate steps through the foyer and on to the floor of the Senate.

They will carry in their hands the speeches on democracy, which have been made by the thirty-four men who voted against democracy for women. In the flame of a torch carried just behind the flag these speeches will be burned. Drawing up their line in front of the presiding officer’s desk, each woman, representing a different group of women, will voice her protest against the injustice done in the cause of liberty by the men who defied Wilson’s appeal for the war measure of woman suffrage. One will be a woman voter from the West, another a working woman representing the millions of women now in industry; others will be young girls representing the women of the future.

Alice Paul noted the double standard involved in regard to men and women seeking democracy:

To remedy the wrongs that are done men it is believed right that whole nations should perish, if need be. To remedy the insult that is done woman by the men who lay the scorn and burden of disenfranchisement upon her it is considered wrong to hold a banner of protest on the steps of our Capitol. Where else are women to go for redress of their grievances, if not to the seats of power? If we cannot make our protests seen by our banners, we will make them heard by our voices in the Senate; but we will not let it be said of women that they acquiesced in the defeat of justice and of liberty.

True to their word, the protesters started for the Capitol today, with the American flag and their purple, white and gold National Woman’s Party banners flying. But they were stopped by a squad of Capitol police awaiting them. Their banners were seized, then Alice Paul and 14 others were arrested – in an unnecessarily rough manner – and placed in the guard-room of the Capitol. None of the detainees have been allowed to communicate with anyone, not even their lawyers, or pro-suffrage Senators, and they are being held without any charges being specified.

National Woman's Party protesters being arrested by Capitol police earlier today.
National Woman’s Party protesters being arrested by Capitol police earlier today.

The words that would have been burned during their occupation of the Senate were those of Senators who lavishly praise promoting democracy worldwide, while voting to withhold it from the women of their own country. Some examples:

“The work that we are called upon to do when we enter this war is to preserve the principles of human liberty, the principles of democracy, and the light of modern civilization,” said Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Republican of Massachusetts.

Senator William Borah, Republican of Idaho, echoed him, saying, “This is a war that speaks for the majesty of people popularly governed.”

“This is the people’s country,” Senator James A Reed, Democrat of Missouri, added. “The nearer you get to the people, the nearer you have a just and fair government.”

Though hypocrisy is far from rare in politics, the worst example of it in the current Senate may have been furnished by Senator John Sharp Williams, Democrat of Mississippi. The same man who just 13 days ago introduced an overwhelmingly rejected motion attempting to change the wording of the Anthony Amendment so that it would only assure the right to vote to white women has said, “When you undertake to erect a structure of democracy it must be founded upon the four pillars of justice, equality, fraternity and liberty.”

At some point the protesters will presumably be released, and will continue their daily showing of banners near the Capitol, often inscribed with the words of those who say they favor democracy but vote against it when it comes to women.

Fortunately, some members of the Senate may soon be replaced following midterm elections in November. If two votes are gained, there will be 64 Senators for suffrage and 32 opposed, (2/3 approval of both Senate and House is required) and the Anthony Amendment will go to the States for ratification after it is re-approved by the new House, then approved for the first time by the new Senate. If this is accomplished early enough, virtually all the State Legislatures will still be in regular session, ratification can occur swiftly, and women will have the vote nationwide long before even the primary elections occur in 1920.