A Break in the Picket Lines

After two months of almost daily picketing, culminating in the March 4th Grand Picket during the NWP’s annual convention in Washington, DC, the pickets temporarily ceased from at least March 7th until April 2nd. The NWP never publicly stated why this break from picketing happened, but we have found many clues in our scrapbook collection of news clippings and the correspondence found in the NWP Papers. A March 7th article from the The Daily Capital Journal of Salem, Oregon stated, “for the first time in months the White House was not picketed by suffragettes Monday. It is claimed they have drawn off to arrange another plan of battle. Or it may be they are on their way home to get ready for that ‘shouting from the housetops’ campaign.” So why did the NWP stop picketing?

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Most likely, a confluence of factors led to the break. Congress recessed mid-March, and perhaps President Wilson took the opportunity to take a vacation before calling for a special session of Congress to discuss the war. The timing around the special session wasn’t widely known and as of early March, NWP members believed the session could be called in May or June. It ended up being April 2nd, and a New York Times headline announced, “Suffragists resume demonstration as Congress discusses war.” Beyond the White House, the NWP added pickets to Congress, too.

Also in early April, Jeannette Rankin of Montana was sworn in as the first woman to serve in the House of Representatives. The NWP heralded her arrival with many enthusiastic articles and much fanfare in The Suffragist. Congresswoman Rankin was seen not only as a representative from Montana, but as a representative for all women. With her election, the NWP felt that the probability of the suffrage amendment passing through Congress increased tremendously. One of Congresswoman Rankin’s first acts was to introduce the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, as the federal suffrage amendment was known. During this time, the NWP turned their attention in part to Congress and Congresswoman Rankin’s needs. The same morning the NWP resumed picketing on April 2nd, Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt both attended a grand breakfast at the Shoreham Hotel and entered with Rankin.

As the U.S. prepared to enter the war in Europe, it is also possible that the NWP stepped off the picket line in order to strategize about their approach to picketing in wartime. They could anticipate the stakes would be raised, but at the same time, the President’s remarks to Congress (“we shall fight for democracy”) offered them ample opportunity to call out his hypocrisy – but they likely anticipated they would be treading a dangerous line between free speech and treason. When they returned to the picket, the New York Times reported a new banner reflecting an adapted rhetoric: “Russia and England are enfranchising women in wartime. How long must American women wait for liberty?”

After the NWP and Congressional Union merged at the early March convention, they decided their message in this time of likely war would remain “suffrage only.” The organizations’ newspaper stayed on this message, even as newspapers across the country moved away from the suffrage issue. This singular approach was not received well by several local branches and leaders. The New York Sun reported that Lucy Burns was rumored to be splitting off from the NWP in the lead up to the March convention. The same newspaper reported that local branches of the CU/NWP considered splitting off as well. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported a “telegram scandal” where allegedly NWP members sent telegrams to Congress urging members not to bring suffrage to a vote. Caroline E. Spencer, secretary of the Colorado branch, wrote to Anne Martin, “I have not discovered the traitorous woman yet.” Scandalous indeed.

While other news outlets searched for conflict within the ranks of the National Woman’s Party, it is possible they simply needed a few weeks to reprioritize after the major merger between the NWP and Congressional Union. This change would likely have caused a significant administrative headache. It’s understandable that, as the organizations merged and local branches adjusted, any available hand to picket may have found more pressing work in the institutional changes. It’s equally possible that this wasn’t as big of a time suck as one might assume, since the leadership had been planning for this merger for months.

Doris Stevens and Beulah Amidon headed south to launch NWP offices, starting with the Carolinas. A March 18th issue of the New York Tribune announced that this Dixie tour would also include, beginning April 1, a motor brigade led by Maud Younger of California. This was a strategic tactic: since the south was held by Democrats, the party that controlled Congress and the White House, more organized constituents were needed there to put pressure on key legislators.

When the NWP decided to recommence picketing, response ranged from concern over resources to eager support. A letter from Mary Beard in New York on April 1st said that even though organizers were to go out west “if money can be secured,” she heard that picketing “is to commence again and three or four people” asked her how money would actually be used. Headquarters wrote to many women asking for their return to the picket. In a March 31st letter to Helen Monro, an NWP member explained, “We are convinced that the picketing is the most effective thing we can do for suffrage at this time.” A similarly worded letter continued, “indeed that we are beginning it again not only at the White House, but also at the Capitol.” There are several eager replies from members confirming they would return to picket.

Unfortunately, our archival records don’t allow us to say precisely why the NWP ceased picketing in March. We have several theories, and at the time, the organization was involved in a great many other activities. Puzzles like this are tricky to put together without the full record of correspondence, notes, and other information in addition to newspaper articles and internal documents. This is why we continue to share our #CircleofSuffrage campaign and encourage you to contribute. If you have a letter, a banner, or some other artifact from the suffrage campaign, please share it with us and tag it #CircleofSuffrage on social media. Help us complete the circle and tell the whole story of the fight for woman suffrage.