The first arrests were made on June 22, 1917. Lucy Burns and Katharine Morey were the first two women to be arrested. They sat at the station house for hours before the police came up with the charge of obstructing traffic, but there were dismissed and never brought to trial. This continued for a few more days before the Administration realized this tactic was not actually frightening the women. Now the offenders would be brought to trial. On June 26, the women were brought to trial and sentenced to pay a fine, which they refused, on the grounds that the fine would be an admission of guilt and they were guilty of nothing. They were then sentenced to prison. Katharine Morey, Annie Arneil, Mabel Vernon, Lavinia Dock, Maud Jamison, and Virginia Arnold were the first prisoners for suffrage in the United States.
These women and all other women who were arrested were sentenced to three days in District Jail. They served their time. Upon further arrests, they were sent to Occoquan Workhouse in neighboring Virginia for terms of thirty or sixty days. This still did not deter the women from standing in their picket line. As one woman was arrested, another one simply took her place in line. When she, too, was arrested, another woman fell into her place, and so on, until the entire horde of women was taken into custody.
Occoquan Workhouse was a prison of the poorest conditions. The prisoners were stripped of their clothes and personal belongings, given coarse, stiff uniforms, and were not allowed to speak to each other, or even smile. The food was deplorable, stale and sour bread, rotten soup with maggots and worms in it, and half-cooked vegetables. Mrs. Frederick Kendall of Hamburg, New York was put in a “punishment cell” under a charge of “impudence.” She was forced to wear the same clothing for eleven days, and she was even refused a nightdress or clean linen for her cot. Her toilet was an open pail, and she was denied water for toilet purposes. Her diet consisted of three thin slices of bread and three cups of water, which was carried to her in a paper cup that dripped so badly that the already small supply was half gone by the time it got to her cell. Other prisoners were often summoned by the guards to attack the suffragists. The condition of the prison was eventually leaked out, and even some friends and supporters of Wilson protested the way the Administration was handling the suffrage issue. The creation of the Suffrage Committee in the House was finally granted, but this did not satisfy the women.
Tired of the incessant pickets, the Administration ordered longer prison terms. Instead of a sixty-day term – approximately two months – they started to give out sentences of six or seven months. The women’s response? More pickets and a protest from inside the prison. Lucy Burns started to organize her imprisoned allies, but officials sensed the plot and moved her to solitary confinement immediately. This only hastened the rebellion. The demand to be treated as political prisoners was written on a piece of paper that was passed through holes in the walls until a complete petition had been created and signed by all the prisoners. This document represented the first organized group action ever made in America to establish the status of political prisoners. The Commissioner’s response to this demand was to put everyone who signed it in solitary confinements, where they were denied some of their usual “privileges.”
On October 22, Alice Paul was arrested and sentenced to seven months at Occoquan. Officials decided to make an example out of the ringleader. The second Paul tried to organize a hunger strike she was taken away and force-fed. The report was that she was being fed in order to keep her alive, when in reality force-feeding has nothing to do with nutrition. A tube is forced up the nose and down the throat of the victim and liquid is poured into the stomach. It is a painful procedure that can cause illness, internal injuries, and even death. Most victims immediately regurgitate everything. In a final attempt to discredit her, Paul was held in psychiatric ward, where she wasn’t allowed to sleep and she was treated as if she were insane. The rest of the women were continually mistreated. In November, on a night that came to be known as the “Night of Terror,” the women were shoved into walls, choked, thrown down steps, and dragged around, sometimes by the hair. Lucy Burns was treated with especial cruelty. When she resisted being taken away, she was beaten. When she continued to call out to the women to find out if they were okay, she was threatened with a straitjacket. She was then handcuffed by her wrists to the top of a cell door. The women continued huger striking and were repeatedly subjected to force-feedings. One of the women wrote a graphic description of the ordeal of a force-feeding.
In the end, under intense pressure, President Wilson ordered the release of the prisoners. On November 23, a trial took place regarding the imprisonment of the suffragists. It was declared that they were illegally sent to Occoquan, that they were supposed to have been put in District Jail. The workhouse prisoners were then taken to District Jail to finish their sentences, where they persisted in hunger striking almost to the point of collapse. The Administration realized they could not afford to force-feed the women and risk the social consequences, nor could it let them starve to death and still risk those consequences. By this time one thing was perfectly clear: The discipline and endurance of the suffragists could not be broken. On November 27, 1917, the doors of the jail were opened and all the suffrage prisoners were unconditionally released.
The women went right back to work. Alice Paul designed a commemorative pin for all the women who had been in prison. It was a tiny silver replica of a cell door bound by a delicate chain and heart-shaped lock. On January 8, 1918, all 218 arrests were declared unconstitutional. Wilson became a warm advocate of suffrage, but until the amendment was added, the women would not stop the pickets or the protests.
In the House of Representatives, the Republican side declared that it would give more than a two-thirds majority vote for the amendment. The pressure was now put on the President to secure enough votes from the Democratic side. On January 10, 1918, the amendment passed by a 272 to 136 vote. It was exactly forty years from the first time the amendment was introduced into Congress and exactly one year from the appearance of the first picket banner. Attention was now focused on the Senate. Sixty-four out of ninety-six votes were necessary for passage. At the time the amendment passed in the House, women’s suffrage only had the support of fifty-three Senators. Seven months later, it had gained nine more – only two votes short – and the President would not guarantee that he would make an effort to secure them.
The Senate was about to recess, and there was no assurance from the Democrats whether suffrage would be considered before or after the recess. The National Woman’s Party decided on a national protest on August 6, the late Inez Milholland’s birthday, which gathered at the base of the LafayetteMonument. The women were arrested, and they demanded to have a charge made against them or be released. They were charged with “holding a meeting in public grounds” and “climbing on a statue.” They were sent to District Jail for ten days, fifteen if they climbed the statue. The place they were taken to was a building in the swamps of the District Jail grounds. It had been declared unfit for human use in 1909 and had stood empty ever since. Demanding to be treated as political prisoners, the women commenced hunger striking upon the refusal. Due to the strike and the telegrams of protest from all over the country, the Administration gave in and released the prisoners.
After a lengthy debate in the Senate, the Democrats found themselves between a rock and a hard place. They could not afford to refer the amendment back to the House Rules Committee, nor could they afford to go to a vote and have it fail. The October 1 vote failed by those two missing votes, and one voter instantly changed his vote, allowing him to move for reconsideration.
When the President refused to lend any assistance to the women, it became clear to them that he’d only move if under attack. They returned to the picket line, and decided on a perpetual fire. On New Year’s Day, 1919, they lit the fire with wood from a tree in IndependencePark, Philadelphia. They were, of course, arrested, but since no charge could be applied, they were released. Later, someone found an old statute that prohibits fires in a public place in the District of Columbia between sunset and sunrise, so the women were again arrested and charged. The Administration feared more hunger strikes so the judge pleaded with the women not to go to jail, offering probation if they promised to be good. They would make no such promise and started their hunger strike the moment they were taken away. So many women were arrested in the following days that the judge grew weary and started dismissing cases without trial.
President’s first appearance after his return from the Peace Conference in France was at Boston Common. When twenty-two women gathered with their banners, they were told they could not be there when the President passed by. They replied, however, that that was exactly where they had to be. Consequently, as the President drew near, the women were arrested, and the sight of it thrilled the Boston masses more than anything the President said. The women were charged with “loitering more than seven minutes.” It was an astonishing situation: Thousands of people loitered from curiosity the day the President arrived and went home afterwards. But twenty-two loitered for liberty, and were taken to the House of Detention. Telegrams of protest flooded from Boston to the White House.
Following more debates and disagreements in the Senate, the amendment still did not get passed. This led to more protests, more arrests, and more violent attacks against the women. Luckily for the suffragists, two new Democratic Senators had been elected who had no opinion either way about the amendment. It was up to the President to sway them, which he did.
Congress convened for a special session on May 19, 1919 for prompt passage of the amendment. On May 21 it passed by a vote of 304 to 89. The Democratic National Committee immediately passed a resolution calling on the states to hold special legislatures to ratify the amendment as soon as it was through Congress so that women could vote in the national election of 1920. Finally, on June 4, 1919, the declaration that “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,” that was first introduced in 1878 by Susan B. Anthony was submitted to the states for ratification. On June 10, 1919, Wisconsin was the first state to ratify the amendment. August 18, 1920, marked the day that the 19th Amendment was completely ratified, giving women the right to vote. A week later, on August 26, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution became law. In November, all women were allowed to vote in the United States national election for the first time.
This year, honor these woman. Be heard. On November 6, 2012, go to your polling place and utilize the right that these brave women (and even men) fought for, what they bled for, starved for, and earned – for me, and for you.
- Iron Jawed Angels. Directed by Katja von Garnier. USA. 125 min., 2004 Perf. Hilary Swank, Frances O’Connor, Anjelica Huston, Patrick Dempsey
- Stevens, Doris; edited by Carol O’Hare. Jailed for Freedom: American Women Win the Vote. Publishers Group West, 1995.
- Irwin, Inez Hayes. The Story of Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party. (also called Uphill With Banners Flying). Washington, D.C.: Denlinger’s Publishers, LTD., The National Woman’s Party, 1964, 1977.
- Lunardini, Christine A. From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights. New York: New YorkUniversity Press, 1986.
- Ford, Linda G. Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman’s Party, 1912-1920. University Press of America, 1991.
- Cullen-DuPont, edited by Kathryn. American Women Activists’ Writings: An Anthology, 1637-2002. Cooper Square Press, 2002.
- Baker, Jean H. Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited. OxfordUniversity Press, 2002.
- Table of Articles and Amendments <http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/constitution.table.html>
- Equal Rights Amendment <http://www.equalrightsamendment.org>