1917 August 9

Suffragist Pickets Seek Espionage Act Exemption


Suffragists associated with the National Woman’s Party led by Alice Paul, who had been picketing the White House in support of a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote, asked the Senate Judiciary Committee on this day for an amendment to the Espionage Act protecting their right to picket.

The U.S. had entered World War I just four months earlier, on April 6, 1917, and a wave of suppression of dissent had swept the country. People were prosecuted under the Espionage Act, passed on June 15, 1917, for anything authorities deemed to interfere with the war effort. That included criticisms of the war, the draft, and the President of the United States. Fifteen anti-war publications had been barred from the mails on July 7, 1917, for example.

Five of the seven women testifying today had been arrested and jailed recently for picketing the White House. They told the Judiciary Committee that “The President says we must not picket the White House,” and sought protection for political speech. Two days later, on August 11, 1917, members of the National Woman’s Party picketed the White House again, this time with signs attacking  President Woodrow Wilson as “Kaiser Wilson” for his failure to support a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. In the context of the rapidly expanding repression, comparing the president with the leader of the German enemy was extremely provocative. Many suffragist pickets were arrested in the weeks ahead, but they were never prosecuted under the Espionage Act.

The Judiciary Committee did not amend the Espionage Act. Suffragist picketing escalated in the fall of 1917, and many National Woman’s Party members were arrested and jailed. Alice Paul and about two dozen others went on hunger strikes in jail. The resulting adverse publicity cause Woodrow Wilson to reverse course and support the suffrage amendment on January 9, 1918.

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

Learn more about Alice Paul: 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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