Turning the Tide – Picket Arrests Sway the Public

Once the United States entered World War I, the NWP continued its aggressive tactic of picketing the White House. The President’s remarks on furthering democracy abroad offered ample content for the hand-stenciled and painted banners the NWP used in their pickets. As mentioned in our previous blog post, the rhetoric used by the NWP pickets ramped up at this point, as did the response from the onlookers. By June, police began arresting pickets for “obstructing traffic.” At first they were arrested and released, but when they refused to stop picketing, they were arrested and taken to court, where a judge would fine them or mandate prison time.

The arrested pickets refused to admit guilt for any wrongdoing or to pay fines. Instead, they faced jail time either at Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Virginia or in the District of Columbia Workhouse. The sentences ranged from three days to seven months. The pickets demanded to be treated with the dignity of political prisoners. Instead, they were forcibly handled by guards, pushed and thrown into cold unsanitary and rat-infested cells. Prisoners were punished for speaking to one another during meal time, a meal which consisted of “sour bread, half-cooked vegetables, and rancid soup with worms in it.” It became a type of game, to count the number of worms each woman had in her soup. 

As the chief strategist of the picketing campaign, Alice Paul was a primary target for police and officials. She joined the picket line and was arrested in October, sentenced to 7 months, and promptly placed in solitary confinement for two weeks. When she was released from solitary, she and another woman, Rose Winslow, went on a hunger strike to protest their treatment. Paul refused to eat and was subjected to psychiatric evaluation. The authorities tried to prove Alice Paul had a persecution mania toward President Wilson, an assessment that could end with her being locked up in an institution. She was moved to a psychiatric ward, two windows in the room, one of which was nailed from top to bottom, and a nurse came in throughout the night to shine a light in her face, preventing her from sleeping. Coupled with this, forcible feeding began.

Paul and Winslow, along with many others who were arrested and imprisoned in the future were force-fed several times a day. As more and more women were arrested for picketing, they followed Paul’s lead. In one instance when Mary Nolan was arrested, at the age of seventy-three years old, she said to the judge:

            “Your Honor, I have a nephew fighting for democracy in France.

            He is offering his life for his country. I should be ashamed if I

            did not join these brave women in their fight for democracy in

            America. I should be proud of the honor to die in prison for the

            liberty of American women.”

Despite the pain and discomfort, Alice Paul, always the strategist, knew that their experience in prison would make for powerful publicity. Paul said that the force-feedings and other harsh acts provided “excellent ammunition” against the administration. “The more harsh we can make the Administration seem…the better,” she wrote. 

When pickets who’d spent time in prison were released, they went out to spread the word about the horrific treatment they endured for their cause. The NWP sent Lucy Burns, who spent more time in jail than any other picket, and other suffrage prisoners on a cross-country speaking tour aboard a train named “Democracy Limited” in 1919.  This was also called the “Prison Special” and the speakers were women who were imprisoned—they wore their prison uniforms and spoke about their horrific experiences to garner more support for suffrage. Learning about the horrific treatment of all types of women, from mothers and grandmothers to society ladies to young women in school or in professions, public opinion began to sway in favor of suffrage. No longer were the women seen as crazed and radical. Instead, the prison stories steered a thoughtful public to a more sympathetic view of the pickets, heaping blame on President Wilson and the administration for the cruel treatment of women.

What started as a peaceful protest – picketing the White House – developed into one of the biggest publicity campaigns for the NWP, and began to turn the tide toward victory.