Second of Three (Part One here)
The first big public appearance of the Congressional Union created such a spectacle that it drew the most attention out of anything going on in the capital. Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and their supporters took full advantage of the festive arrangements and publicity surrounding Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration. On March 3, 1913, Paul planned a dramatic parade, coordinating over eight thousand college women, professional women, working women, and middle-class members of the NAWSA into marching suits, and giving them banners to carry. The procession was led by Inez Milholland, who became the face of suffrage. She rode confidently on a white horse, draped in flowing white robes, proudly carrying a golden banner that read, “Forward out of Darkness, Forward into Light,” which later became the official motto for the National Woman’s Party. Also in this precession, a banner that would come to be known as the Great Demand Banner was carried for the first time. It read:
The parade marched past the White House, down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol. At the time of this parade, women’s suffrage had gained respectability among middle- and upper-class women, and many politically and socially well-connected women were among the supporters. However, the general public and most male politicians – particularly those from the East and the South – did not support suffrage for women. The crowd of hundreds of thousands that watched the parade was predominantly male, and they jeered, taunted, and spat on the women as they marched by. Objects were thrown and women were harassed. When things got rough and the crowd converged upon the marching women, police did little to contain the rowdy masses or protect the women, remaining oblivious to the situation. The War Department called in the cavalry to restore order, fearing a riot. The event drew so much attention that when Wilson came into town, as he drove from the station to his hotel, he asked where all the people were and was informed that they were over on the Avenue, watching the Suffrage Parade. The parade and the events following kept the procession and suffrage in the public mind for some time. The entire event almost overshadowed the inauguration itself. Alice Paul had accomplished her goal; to make woman suffrage a major political issue.
Members of the Congressional Union held meetings with President Wilson in an effort to educate him on the topic of women’s suffrage, and they urged him to bring up the subject in his message to Congress. Wilson told the ladies that he has no say in the matter, and could not express his own personal views in a message to Congress. As the year progressed, the first issue of The Suffragist was printed on November 15, 191,, edited by well-known publicist Rheta Childe Dorr. Its purpose was to keep supporters of the Congressional Union up-to-date on events.
The Congressional Union, however, faced its demise.
Early in 1914, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) informed the Congressional Union that they could remain a part of the NAWSA only if they paid a 5% tax on all their earnings and a hundred dollar annual fee. It was an ultimatum created to mask the underlying problem: There had been a strain between NAWSA and the Congressional Union for some time, because the former opposed the use of force employed by the latter. Alice Paul had long since made the decision to become independent of the NAWSA, and it was in Chicago in 1916 that the most significant move was made. The Congressional Union was recognized as a powerful political force, as the male politicians begged for their support for their own political parties. The women had a different idea however, that is, to form a new party, a party with only one platform – the passage of a federal suffrage amendment. It was a party determined to withhold support from all existing parties until women were politically free.
The National Woman’s Party was born.
The Republican and Democratic National Conventions both included suffrage planks in their own platforms. Although not enough to satisfy the NWP, it was a step in the right direction. The Republican Party’s platform was vague and indefinite about national suffrage, while the Democratic Party specifically encouraged that the decision be left up to the individual states, not by Congress with a constitutional amendment. It was assumed that the President himself had written this plank, due to the fact that two years previous he had stated that he believed suffrage should be settled by the states when he cast his vote in a state referendum in his state of New Jersey. Wilson knew that a state amendment in New Jersey would fail, and therefore by casting his vote for it he could appease the women and still not bring suffrage any closer. Under the protection of the Democratic plank, Congress continued to block the idea of national suffrage.
Miss Mabel Vernon of Delaware was the first member of the NWP to commit a “militant” act. During a speech, Wilson spoke about his belief in liberty and justice. Frustrated, Vernon jumped to her feet and said, “Mr. President, if you sincerely desire to forward the interests of all the people, why do you oppose the national enfranchisement of women?” (Stevens, 50) The President brushed her off by saying that was something they would have to discuss later. Vernon repeated her question later and was removed from the meeting by police.
In August, 1916, some progress was made. Republican presidential candidate Charles Evans Hughes spoke publicly in favor of a federal amendment. His view was that the amendment should be ratified and passed and then subject could be dropped from political discussion. Meanwhile, the NWP asked women voters to withhold their support of President Wilson during his reelection campaign, due to the Democratic denial of woman suffrage. The Democratic speakers were met with unexpected force as they toured the country, and they kept telling the women to be patient, that Wilson would be able to help them in his next term. Wilson himself had used almost the same words whenever Carrie Chapman Catt and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw of NAWSA spoke with him. The women were constantly told to be patient.
Tired of waiting, twelve women carrying suffrage banners of purple, white, and gold silently walked the distance between the National Woman’s Party Lafayette Park Headquarters to the iron White House Gates on January 10, 1917. They held two large banners:
These women were the first people ever to protest at the White House. The NWP’s unique style of feminine militancy had begun. This militancy consisted of three stages. First came the displaying of defiant messages in peaceful picketing. Next was picketing using passive resistance in the face of mob attacks and the first arrests. Then came the hunger strike to obtain political prisoner and martyr status for the jailed picketers.
The peaceful picketing lasted from that first day in January until the United States entered World War I in April. The picketing idea was largely based on something Alice Paul often said, which was, “If a creditor stands before a man’s house all day long, demanding payment of his bill, the man must either remove the creditor or pay the bill.” (Ford, 125) Paul’s talent for pageantry was at its best on the picket line. In February, the Woman’s Party had special picket days; Women Voter’s Day, Patriot Day, state days, days for various professional women, and College Day. The banners held by the women were very clever and often quoted Wilson himself, like his war message of “We shall fight for the things which we have always held nearest our hearts – for Democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments.”
Inez Milholland, the face of suffrage, gave her life in the struggle for equal rights.
She traveled to many states during the early days of the Congressional Union despite her ill health. Before collapsing at a meeting in Los Angeles, her last words were, “How long must women wait for liberty?” The banner that the picketers carried with them at all times on the line was, therefore, in tribute to her. Inauguration Day 1917 was nearly a repeat of the previous inauguration, with a thousand women marching. Vida Milholland, carrying a golden banner with her sister’s last words emblazoned across it, marched first in line, the Great Demand Banner following behind her. The women were met with locked gates at the White House, and stood there for hours in the pouring rain.
The NWP indirectly helped the NAWSA succeed: Legislators were so irritated by the militant stance of the NWP that they were happy to do favors for the lobbyists in the NAWSA who were so friendly and polite. NAWSA women were working for the war effort as well as woman suffrage, and distanced themselves from NWP actions and members. In April and May, progress for suffrage seemed to be made. The Susan B. Anthony amendment was introduced into the House and Senate, and on May 1, 1917, the President wrote that he approved of the formation of a House Woman Suffrage Committee. Catt feared that the NWP’s policies would prevent further positive Congressional action and wrote to Paul to ask her to withdraw the pickets before they endangered the establishment of the Committee. The NWP remained unmoved by the pleas and continued to picket. In June they were threatened with being arrested, and still they refused to leave. The White House Administration was forced to take action. Like Paul said, the man must either pay the bill or remove the creditor. The Administration chose not to pay the bill.
The Administration chose to remove the creditor.