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The Great War | Article

A Woman's War

As America entered the Great War, authorities pressured suffragists to drop their cause and join the war effort. They refused, turning President Woodrow Wilson’s hypocritical pleas for democracy elsewhere into a potent weapon at home.

By Mary Walton

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Suffragists picket outside the White House on June 20, 1917, a couple months after America’s entry into the Great War. Courtesy of the National Woman’s Party at the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, Washington, D.C.

Government workers on their lunch break strolling past the White House on June 20, 1917, stopped short at the sight of two well-dressed women sedately holding up a densely worded 10-foot high banner.

Their presence was nothing new. Followers of suffragist Alice Paul had been picketing a recalcitrant president for the last five months with ever more strident demands for a constitutional amendment giving women the vote.

But this banner crossed a line.

The target was a Russian delegation scheduled to meet with President Woodrow Wilson and his envoy Elihu Root.

In bold black letters the banner accused Wilson and Root of deceiving the new Russian government: 

“ They say, We are a democracy. Help us win a world war, so that democracies may survive.

“ We, the women of America, tell you that America is not a democracy. Twenty million American Women are denied the right to vote. President Wilson is the chief opponent of their national enfranchisement.”

The “Russian banner,” as it came to be known, reflected the desperation Paul felt as war distracted both the nation and the U.S. Congress from the suffrage campaign she had been leading for four years. The war had also divided the suffrage movement into those who favored war work and those who continued to put suffrage first.

Paul had no intention of giving up her campaign. She well remembered what had happened a half century earlier. As she lectured reporters, “When the Civil War began, Susan B. Anthony was told the same things we are being told today. If she’d only drop her suffrage work and become an abolitionist, women would be given the vote as a reward as soon as the war was over. She did drop her work, and as a result all legislation in which women were interested was promptly dropped.” After the war, reformers’ focus shifted to the Fifteenth Amendment, enfranchising black males. This was, they said, the “Negroes’ Hour.” Suffragists were told to wait their turn. Now, in 1917, they were still waiting.

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Suffragist Lucy Branham. Library of Congress/Harris & Ewing

Suffrage aside, women faced other pressures. The war offered them the opportunity to fill critical jobs vacated by soldiers, but it also incited mothers to deliver their cherished sons to the nearest recruiting station. Socialist Kate Richards O’Hare was arrested for charging “that the women of the United States were nothing more than brood sows to raise children to get into the army and be made into fertilizer.” She was sentenced under the harsh new Espionage Act to five years in prison.

Loyalty clearly prevailed. The president was the commander-in-chief, and American boys were dying on the battlefield. Paul’s Russian banner had gone too far. Hurling cries of “treason” and “traitor,” leaders of a flash mob ripped down the offending banner.

As their protests continued in coming weeks, pickets were attacked daily. Wilson bowed to demands for their arrest. Convicted of violating the District’s Peace and Order Act, a misdemeanor, they were jailed and brutalized. They went on hunger strikes and were force fed. Arrested while picketing, Alice Paul was sentenced to seven months and remanded to a psychiatric ward.

Meanwhile, Wilson’s position had hardened. A southern Democrat, he had long held that suffrage was a matter for each state to decide. Now he ordered Congress to pass only war measures. That clearly excluded a measure allowing females to cast votes.

But public opinion was turning. Wilson’s hypocritical pleas for democracy elsewhere became a potent weapon in the hands of suffragists — and admiration for their courage drew support. Had not the loyal women who drove trucks, operated heavy machinery, and assembled airplane motors earned the right to vote? Some 100,000 kept the trains running. Not only did they sell tickets, they repaired train tracks and cleaned cars. The Women’s Land Army enlisted 20,000 females nicknamed “farmerettes” to till, plant and harvest. Their efforts fed Americans and British at home and at war. Food, it was said, would win the war.

One of the women workers was Florence Bayard Hilles, a wealthy Delaware aristocrat, who filled shells in a munitions factory. Like her younger co-workers her skin turned yellow and her hair orange with “powder poison.” She didn’t need the money, but she craved a patriot’s satisfaction. The unexpected bonus, she said, was a “lesson in democracy.”

The suffragists soon saw real political gains. After a hard fought campaign, New Yorkers approved suffrage that November. Now that state’s 45 members of Congress risked losing their seats if they didn’t vote for the constitutional amendment.

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Activists watch Alice Paul sew a star onto the Ratification Flag. Library of Congress

New York was only the twelfth state to grant full suffrage to women. But three more states would do so in 1918. Republicans were rallying around the constitutional amendment. On the eve of a congressional vote in early January, a dozen worried Democrats met with the president.

To their astonishment, he announced a change of heart. Other great democracies were giving women the vote, he said— England, Canada, Russia — how could America be left behind? Further, the amendment was a constitutional measure. It was not for states to decide because it was a national question.

Just days before the war ended on November 11, 1918, as Congress continued to balk, Wilson declared that suffrage was a war measure after all. It was, in fact, “vitally essential to the successful prosecution” of the war.

Six months later Congress finally passed the amendment. It was ratified by the requisite three-quarters of the states, then signed into law on August 26, 1920. Returning soldiers reclaimed their jobs. And women voted in the 1920 election.

Mary Walton is the author of A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot. She is a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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