Today in Herstory: DC Court of Appeals Declares Arrests of Suffragists Illegal

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.


March 4, 1918: A major victory today for 218 suffragists arrested during last year for picketing along the White House fence!

The Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia has just declared their arrests illegal and voided all convictions of the “Silent Sentinel” pickets handed down by the local Police Court. The picketing began on January 10, 1917, the day after a delegation of 300 suffragists had an unsatisfactory meeting with President Wilson.

A number of those at the meeting were sufficiently offended by the President’s general attitude, and his unwillingness to either officially endorse the Susan B. Anthony (nationwide woman suffrage) Amendment, or help the woman suffrage cause despite his personal support for it in principle, that they took the unprecedented step of posting pickets, dubbed “Silent Sentinels” by Harriot Stanton Blatch, outside the White House gates. Though choosing not to speak, they made their message clear through large banners emblazoned with questions such as: “MR. PRESIDENT, WHAT WILL YOU DO FOR WOMAN SUFFRAGE?” and “MR. PRESIDENT, HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?”

Though relations between the Sentinels, the White House, passers-by and the police were quite friendly at first, U.S. entry into the Great War last April 6th sparked hostility from many on the street toward those who would criticize our President in time of war. Also, the pickets’ daily reminders of President Wilson’s hypocrisy in praising the virtues of democracy overseas while doing nothing to bring its benefits to the women of America proved quite embarrassing to the Administration, so the atmosphere grew increasingly hostile.

Arrests began on June 22nd of last year, with Lucy Burns and Katherine Morey charged with “blocking traffic” on the sidewalk. The picketing – and arrests – continued, with 41 taken into custody on one day alone. Convictions, then sentences from a few days to as long as seven months in the District Jail or infamous Occoquan Workhouse followed. Those sent to Occoquan on November 14th were subjected to the most brutality and indignities by the guards. The “Night of Terror” when they arrived was the worst, with, among many other incidents, Burns manacled to the bars of her cell with her arms above her head, and some women thrown into their cells so forcefully that they struck their head on the wall or the metal bed frame.

The suffrage prisoners immediately began a hunger strike protesting the denial of “political prisoner” status. Lucy Burns, considered the strike’s “ringleader” was transferred to the District Jail, where she joined Alice Paul in being force-fed three times a day. Finally, in very late November, the prisoners were released due to public outrage over their treatment, and on December 4th, eight lawsuits for $50,000 each were filed against the wardens of the Occoquan Workhouse and the District Jail as well as the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, charging assault, illegal detention and false imprisonment.

Today’s court decision will allow all 218 ex-prisoners to sue the District over their illegal arrests. It also affirms the right to peacefully assemble and protest in the future. In the words of the Court:

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… Neither is peaceable assembly, under the present statute, unlawful. The statute does not condemn the mere act of assembling on a street, but prohibits assembling or congregating, coupled with doing of the forbidden acts. 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 in a degree inconveniencing pedestrians, they would be guilty under the statute of crowding and obstructing the free use of the walk.

The National Woman’s Party will continue to put pressure on President Wilson to use his considerable influence on reluctant Democrats to help the Anthony Amendment. He finally endorsed it on January 9th, a year to the day after the meeting with suffrage supporters which launched the “Silent Sentinel” campaign. The next day the Anthony Amendment got the exact 2/3 majority required for passage by the House. But Wilson still needs to be prodded into helping suffragists convert enough Democratic opponents to the cause to win passage by 2/3 of the Senate. The amendment can then be sent to the States for ratification, with approval by 36 of the 48 State legislatures required to become part of the Constitution.

The Susan B. Anthony Amendment, first introduced in Congress on January 10, 1878, states:

Section 1. 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.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

INFLATIONARY NOTE: $50,000 on December 4, 1917, when the lawsuits were filed = $912,918 today.

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