1917 August 11

“Kaiser Wilson” – Suffragists Picket White House


Militant suffragists, led by Alice Paul, demanding a constitutional amendment that would grant women the right to vote picketed the White House on this day. Some carried signs that denounced President Woodrow Wilson as “Kaiser Wilson.” The United States had declared war against Germany, on April 6, 1917, and anti-German and anti-radical hysteria quickly swept the country. In that context, equating the president with the German Kaiser was particularly inflammatory. It is remarkable that the suffragists carrying the sign were not arrested and prosecuted under the Espionage Act for interfering with the war effort.

The “Kaiser Wilson” poster provoked attacks by four anti-feminists who physically attacked some of the protesters and tore up two of their signs. The police did nothing to stop the attacks, did not arrest the assailants, but eventually ordered the crowd to move on. Finally, on August 17th, six suffragist demonstrators were arrested.

Alice Paul had begun her militant campaign for a suffrage amendment on March 3, 1913, and the effort intensified in early 1917 (see January 10, 1917). She and other suffragists were arrested for picketing the White House on October 20, 1917, and were brutalized while confined in the city’s workhouse (November 15, 1917). The publicity evidently embarrassed President Wilson, and he finally reversed his position and publicly supported a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote on January 9, 1918.

The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920, and women voted in all state and national elections, including the election for president,  for the first time on November 2, 1920.

Alice Paul is also famous for drafting and introducing the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have granted equality to women (July 21, 1923). The ERA was voted on several times in the 1940s and 1950s, but never secured the required number of votes for a proposed Constitutional amendment. In a very different political climate, it passed Congress on March 22, 1972, and was sent to the states for ratification. After quickly securing a number of state ratifications, however, it ran into fierce neo-conservative opposition and died.

See a photograph of the famous “Kaiser Wilson” sign: http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/woman-suffrage/kaiser-wilson.html

Read Paul’s biography: Mary Walton, A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot (2010)

Read Paul’s Oral History interview: http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/kt6f59n89c/

Watch the film about Alice Paul and her protests: Iron Jawed Angels (2004) (with Hilary Swank as Alice Paul)

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