“I have been kept from the privilege of incoming or outgoing mail for over the past week and am now locked in a small cell in ‘solitary,'” Norfolk suffragist Pauline Adams wrote to one of her sons from the District of Columbia’s prison workhouse on 23 October 1917. She had been sentenced to sixty days in the workhouse for “blocking traffic,” the charge the city’s police decided to “trump up against us” in order to arrest peaceful women picketing the White House for the right to vote. Although it’s now common to see demonstrations at the White House, these women were the first to implement daily protests there more than a century ago.
When suffragists organized the Virginia branch of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage in 1915, they immediately began campaigning for an amendment to the United States Constitution. This federal amendment, generally known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, stated that the right to vote “shall not be denied. . . on account of sex” and gave Congress the power “to enforce the provisions of this article.” The enforcement provision frightened many white Virginians because it echoed the language of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the voting rights of African American men after the Civil War. White Virginia politicians had spent decades undoing the reforms of the post-war period, and they feared that a federal woman suffrage amendment would threaten their disfranchisement of African American men. Virginia suffragists faced a daunting task as they lobbied for the amendment.
Virginia Congressional Union officers and members sent countless letters and telegrams, organized meetings in parlors and on street corners, and publicized visits to their congressmen, but they made little headway in convincing politicians to support a federal suffrage amendment.
Alice Paul, founder and chairman of the national Congressional Union, believed that keeping the issue of woman suffrage in the news and in people’s minds was the best way to force Congress and President Woodrow Wilson to support the amendment. When parades, cross-country tours, and public presentations of petitions didn’t get the job done, Paul implemented an innovative strategy to increase the visibility of suffragists fighting for their right to vote.
On 10 January 1917, members of the Congressional Union (renamed the National Woman’s Party in March 1917) marched from their headquarters at Lafayette Square to the White House. At the east and west gates, groups of women stood silently with banners in the organization’s colors (purple for loyalty to the cause, white for purity, and gold for light) and banners that asked “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” Norfolk suffragist Maud Jamison, who left her job as a teacher to work in the office of the national headquarters, joined the pickets on the first day and was a regular presence on the picket line.
Virginia branch chairman Sophie Meredith also participated in the inaugural picket line and quickly organized a “Virginia Day.” On January 27 more than a dozen Virginians traveled by train and boat to Washington to take their places on the picket line. Known as “silent sentinels” because they did not respond to taunts and threats, the women stood outside the White House every day, through the cold and snow of winter and the heat and storms of summer.
The pickets continued even after the United States entered the First World War in April 1917. The banners often quoted Wilson’s own speeches in support of democracy abroad in order to highlight his hypocrisy in denying the vote to women at home. Some opponents considered the suffragists’ actions as treasonous and groups attacked the pickets in June, tearing their banners away. The police began arresting the pickets for “obstructing traffic,” even though they were on a sidewalk and not blocking vehicles or pedestrians while exercising their constitutional rights of free speech and peaceful assembly. Maud Jamison was among the pickets arrested and was part of the first group sentenced to jail. She was arrested at least half a dozen more times, making her the Virginia woman with the most arrests while demonstrating for women’s voting rights. Although Woodrow Wilson did not want to make martyrs of the picketers, the District of Columbia police feared that conflict in the city’s streets could be used as wartime propaganda against the United States, so arrests continued.
During the next eighteen months, approximately 500 women were arrested and more than 160 served prison sentences. The pickets were respectable upper- and middle-class white women of all ages—very few African American women were encouraged to join the picket lines—and the National Woman’s Party highlighted the fact that they could be anybody’s wife, sister, mother, or grandmother being sent to jail. After Sophie Meredith, then in her mid-sixties, was arrested, she paid her fine at the insistence of her children who told her that it was “better to be a live suffragist than a dead one.” The picketing tactic was controversial and Equal Suffrage League of Virginia president Lila Meade Valentine opposed the efforts of this “little band of willful women who are doing harm to our cause,” especially while the United States was at war.
Many of the women were sent to the District’s prison workhouse located in southern Fairfax County, on the Occoquan River. After Pauline Adams was arrested in August 1917 she wrote letters to each of her sons describing the conditions there. Not only was she deprived of her mail and sometimes kept in solitary, she told them that “I have not been given my tooth brush or hair-brush here.” In a letter on workhouse stationary she also asked them to “Tell Dad that I hope he is not too busy to sometimes think of his ‘old lady’ ‘doing time.'” The women kept up their spirits by singing in their cells, often writing new lyrics to old tunes to describe their treatment in prison. They were sometimes put to work painting cells and sewing. Poor sanitary conditions included shared water buckets for drinking and rats running through the cells. Suffragists described receiving “spoiled and uneatable meat” and “wormy bread.” Some went on hunger strikes and were force fed.
In January 1919, after Woodrow Wilson had finally endorsed a federal suffrage amendment, the National Woman’s Party implemented a new strategy to keep him focused on the issue. Suffragists began holding nightly watch fires, where they burned copies of the president’s speeches on democracy. Several Virginia woman participated, including Pauline Adams and Maud Jamison. On February 9, when they burned an effigy of the president, Adams carried a banner accusing Wilson of deceiving the world: “He preaches democracy abroad and thwarts democracy here.” Adams was among the women arrested, but was released for lack of evidence.
The news coverage of the arrests, imprisonment, and treatment of the suffragists had likely played a role in the approval of a suffrage amendment by the House of Representatives in January 1918. Unless the Senate also approved the amendment before the end of the congressional session in 1919, the suffragists would have to start over in the next Congress. As a last ditch effort to convince the Senate, the National Woman’s Party chartered a train they called the Prison Special. In February and March 1919, Pauline Adams and about two dozen other former prisoners, clad in replicas of their prison attire, shared their stories of protest and mistreatment in cities across the country to drum up support for suffrage.
The United States Senate did not approve the suffrage amendment before the Sixty-Fifth Congress ended in March, and suffragists feared they would have to wait another year for an amendment. But when the president called the Sixty-Sixth Congress into an early special session in May 1919, both chambers approved sending the suffrage amendment to the states for ratification—although of Virginia’s two senators and ten congressmen, only Republican C. Bascom Slemp voted in favor. The Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in August 1920 (Virginia refused to ratify). Between 75,000 and 100,000 Virginia women, white and African American, registered to vote in September and October 1920.
The willingness of women to stand “shoulder to shoulder on the Picket Line,” as Virginia National Woman’s Party secretary Marion Read stated in her 1917 annual report, as well as their willingness to spend years writing letters, making speeches, holding meetings, raising money, signing petitions, distributing literature, and planning campaigns, forced male politicians to take the necessary steps to guarantee voting rights for women. The woman suffrage movement was one of a sequence of campaigns that different groups of Americans fought to make a reality of the Declaration of Independence’s implied promise that all people are created equal. As we commemorate the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, it is important to recognize that not all American women were able to participate in the democratic process in 1920. It took many more decades of civil rights activism—and the fight still continues for some Americans—for all women to freely exercise their right to vote as guaranteed by the Constitution.
-Mari Julienne, co-author of The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia.
Learn more about the suffrage movement in the Library of Virginia’s book The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia (The History Press, 2020), which is available from The Virginia Shop. The Library’s exhibition, We Demand: Women’s Suffrage in Virginia, is currently closed to help contain the spread of covid-19, but please visit the We Demand website for more suffrage resources.