The flu pandemic was still ravaging the country and the soldiers who returned from WWI carried the double burden of severe injuries and PTSD. However, the suffragists pushed on. The National Woman’s Party (NWP) who had been picketing the White House since January of 1918, took even bolder action to draw attention to suffrage. President Wilson had promised to do all he could to help pass suffrage, but with the bill lingering in the Senate with no scheduled vote, the words felt empty and pandering. On September 16, 1918, the NWP staged a protest at the Lafayette monument across from the White House. With the President’s hollow promise to “do all I can” written on a piece of paper, Lucy Branham held up a torch and publicly burned the note.
On October 1, 1918, the Senate finally held the first vote on the suffrage bill. It was 2 votes short of the ⅔ majority needed and did not pass. The Silent Sentinels of the National Woman’s Party (Episode 71) wore black armbands to mourn the “Death of Justice”. However the real activism came when women from all kinds of suffrage organizations became intentionally focused on campaigning against any politician who was not actively supporting suffrage. Progressives won the 1918 fall election.
On December 16, the 145th Anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, 300 women from the NWP went to the Lafayette monument across from the White House. They carried suffrage banners and torches. They brought a large urn to burn books that President Wilson had written and copies of speeches he had given; any paper where he mentioned “liberty”, “freedom”, or “democracy”. 84-year-old suffrage veteran Olympia Brown was one of the protestors.
On January 1, 1919, suffragists from the NWP placed a Grecian urn filled with wood harvested from a tree in Philadelphia’s Independence Mall in front of the White House gates and lit the first official “Watchfire of Freedom”. Through the freezing rain, Alice Paul, Annie Arniel (WCW 73) and Julia Emory stood guard the first night. Over the next few days, crowds often rushed to extinguish the “perpetual flame” and harass the suffragists. Arrests were made. New suffragists took their place and continually relit the fire no matter what happened. By the end of January, 29 suffragists were on hunger strikes in prison and other suffragists continued to take their place to keep the fire burning.
The watchfire demonstrations forced the Senate to schedule a second vote on the suffrage bill for February 10, 1919. Suffragists hoped the lame duck Senators would want to leave a positive legacy on the way out. The bill only needed one more vote to pass. In one last bold attempt to demand suffrage, the women planned to burn an effigy of President Wilson. In order to get away with it before police could stop them, instead of making a large easily seized figure, they made a two-foot tall cartoonish figure that could be concealed until needed and quickly dropped into the urn. Sue White held the effigy, accused the president and his party of keeping women “in political slavery”, and dropped it into the flames. All the women were immediately arrested. Moderate suffrage groups condemned the outrageous act which shocked the general public. On February 10th, the bill was voted down.
The NWP’s brazen actions were very much in line with Emmeline Pankhurst's militant British suffragettes who cut up golf courses, smashed shop windows, and set buildings on fire. While in London, both Lucy Burns and Alice Paul were active members of Pankhurst’s radical group. Picketing the White House and burning the President in effigy was seen to be just as violent as the acts of the British suffragettes, but, the National Women’s Party never embraced the term “suffragette” and only used “suffragist”.
The names of some of the women who were arrested for the effigy burning were Louise Havermyer, Cora Weeks, Bertha Wallerstein, Louise Bryant, Mary Edith Ainge, Amy Jungling, Mrs. Payls Chevrier, and Lucy Burns.
This week’s song pick:
“I’m Burning for You” by the Blue Oyster Cult, covered by actor Zoe Weizenbaum as the character Malee Chuang in the movie “12 and Holding” (It is only part of the song but she’s fabulous.)
Image of a “Watchfire for Freedom” 1919
Episode 77 Sources: