19th at 100: Commemorating the Suffrage Struggle and Its Legacies in Northeast Ohio

Protest and the National Woman's Party

A step beyond processions and parades, suffragists also caught attention in more controversial ways. The National Woman's Party (NWP) stands out as the group that picketed the White House, even during World War I, and led hunger strikes when jailed. Formed by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who were trained in protest techniques by the militant suffragettes of England, the NWP was the radical counterpart of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The organization began campaigning for suffrage with escalated use of pamphlets, parades, pageants, billboards, and coast to coast speaking tours. They also collected signatures for suffrage petitions, and even heckled political candidates. Unlike NAWSA, the NWP was not scared of bad publicity, seeing any publicity as a way to spread their existence and message. 

After the death of suffragist Inez Milholland Boissevain in October of 1916 while speaking for suffrage, the NWP approached President Wilson with resolutions. He dismissed them, and Paul decided to begin picketing the White House, something never done before by any political activist. On January 10th, 1917, NWP members paraded out of their headquarters in Washington D.C. to the White House gates, where they stood silently with signs and banners. They would continue this practice daily for the next two months, rain or shine. Initially this protest was pretty much ignored by authorities, with President Wilson even waving at the picketers as he drove into the White House. 

However, as the U.S. entered World War I in April of 1917, political dissidence became more problematic. The NWP began including quotes from the president on the importance of democracy abroad, a clear hypocrisy in their eyes, and made signs comparing him to the German Kaiser. NAWSA, on the other hand, backed away from suffrage activities and encouraged supporting the war effort. The NWP’s picketing began attracting mob violence, often instigated by soldiers or sailors who saw them as unpatriotic. 

The first picketers were arrested on June 22nd on charges of obstructing traffic. As pickets continued, women were given prison sentences, many of them at Occoquan Workhouse, where some of the worst atrocities occurred. Many imprisoned picketers went on hunger strike, demanding to be considered political prisoners. Prison employees reacted by force feeding the strikers and even beating them. On November 15th at Occoquan, 40 guards attacked 33 of the suffragists with clubs. Lucy Burns was beaten and chained with her hands above her head and left that way for the night. Another suffragist was thrown into a room and knocked out against a metal bed. All of the women involved suffered injuries.

The NWP treated these imprisoned picketers as heroes, and many of them toured the country.  They would wear prison costume and speak of their experiences in jail. The treatment of suffragists for their protest inspired crowds to their cause. Pictures of them leaving jail emaciated and leaning on others for support were circulated. The sensational stories of the picketers spread awareness of female suffrage across the U.S. Combined with the efforts of NAWSA members for the war, suffragists had both a carrot and a stick to convince governments they needed the vote. 



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