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Protest Delivered the Nineteenth Amendment


It took a surge of inventive, audacious, confrontational protests, inspired in part by militant British suffragists, to reënergize the movement. In January, 1917, the National Women’s Party, led by the single-minded young suffragist Alice Paul, began a campaign of civil disobedience. For the first time, protesters picketed the White House. Woodrow Wilson, a Southern Democrat and patrician racist who had been reëlected President the previous year, had no interest in supporting a federal amendment granting women the vote, but tolerated the provocation for a while. After the United States entered the First World War, though, the suffragists started carrying signs comparing Wilson to the Kaiser, and his patience ran out. In June, the police began arresting the protesters en masse. Convicted of offenses such as “disorderly conduct” and “obstructing sidewalk traffic,” they were imprisoned, in harsh and filthy conditions, at the Occoquan Workhouse, in Lorton, Virginia.

When the women were denied recognition as political prisoners, they went on hunger strike, and guards subjected them to horrific force-feedings. The more moderate suffragists continued to lobby male politicians, for the most part politely and effectively. But when Congress finally passed the Nineteenth Amendment, and the states ratified it, that victory was largely due to the new breed of suffragist who simply would not stand down. “People who had never before thought of suffrage for women had to think about it,” a jailed picketer recalled, “if only to the extent of objecting to the way in which we asked for it.”

In the Presidential election of 1920, and for some years after, women did not vote in the expected large numbers. It was easy to blame them for a deficiency of civic spirit, and plenty of people did, including former suffragists. But there were structural forces at work. Local election officials often regarded the influx of new voters as a burden, and imposed poll taxes and literacy tests. Black women, in particular, faced obstacles that made voting risky and difficult, if not impossible.

The disenfranchisement of Black women was a cause that Alice Paul and the newly formed League of Women Voters should have taken up—not least because African-Americans had been key figures in the drive for female suffrage, dating back to Frederick Douglass’s enthusiastic participation in the Seneca Falls Convention, in 1848, and Sojourner Truth’s “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” speech, three years later, up through the N.A.A.C.P.’s advocacy for the cause, starting in the nineteen-tens. Yet when Black women’s groups appealed to Paul for help, in 1921, she refused them, saying that the problem was a “race issue,” not a “women’s issue.”


Read entire article at The New Yorker