Mabel Vernon

The Picketing Campaign Nears Victory – Dec. 7, 1917

Mabel Vernon
December 07, 1917— Washington, D.C.
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Vernon addresses the Advisory Council Conference of the NWP.

I should like to go back to the 9th of last January. Probably a great many of you went to the President on that day in a delegation which presented to him the resolutions adopted at the memorial services for Inez Milholland.

In San Francisco and in New York memorial services were held, and on Christmas day in Statuary Hall at the Capitol there was that beautiful service that many of us remember; it made an impression, I think, that we will never allow to escape from our memories. These services were filled with the very spirit of Inez Milholland herself. She had the undaunted kind of spirit that never recognizes defeat, that is always filled with the desire to go on and do more, do the thing which will win. It was that spirit which caught each one of those services.

The resolutions addressed to the President said: “Mr. President, we appeal to you to put a stop to all further waste of effort on the part of women in this struggle to procure suffrage. Mr. President, we appeal to you to put a stop to any further waste of life on the part of women in the fight for their enfranchisement.”

It was rather difficult to procure that audience with the President. It took a good bit of persuasion, not only from us, but from members of Congress, from Senators and from Representatives, to make the President see that he really should receive a delegation of suffragists on this occasion and hear from them what they desired of him. In the light of what he had said, in the light of what he had written during the few months past, it would not have been an amazing thing at all, if on this January day he had simply announced: “Yes, I am going to recommend the passage of the National Suffrage Amendment to Congress, I am going to put all my power behind it.”

You remember how he had gone down to Atlantic City and told the convention of national suffragists that he had come to “fight with them.” You recall how in the campaign in the West for election, President Wilson had sent campaign orators to speak for him in regard to woman suffrage. I can remember very well how Mr. Dudley Field Malone came to Reno, when we were campaigning there, and said as the chief point in his address to women voters on that night, that we need not be afraid to vote for President Wilson if we cared anything about national woman suffrage; that the President truly was the friend of woman suffrage, and that if he were returned to the White House through the help of the Western women, there would soon be action on the national suffrage amendment.

Not only the spoken words of orators but literature from the campaign committee of the Democratic Party gave us hopes that President Wilson had come to the point where he would stand for national suffrage. “I intend to vote for woman suffrage in New Jersey because I believe that the time has come to extend that privilege and responsibility to the women of the state.” That was the statement from the White House, when President Wilson set out to New Jersey to vote for woman suffrage there in 1915. But this little document which I hold in my hand, and which was spread throughout the West, so that every woman who was going to vote received one, has had a change made in it. It reads: “I intend to vote for woman suffrage in New Jersey because I believe that the time has come to extend that privilege and responsibility to the women of the nation, October 6, 1915, Woodrow Wilson.” Certainly we had reason to believe, when this came from the national democratic headquarters in Chicago, as it did, that so very important a change had been made with full authority from the President.

But to the delegation the President January 9 said the very same thing we had heard on several different occasions: “Ladies, I think you make a mistake in coming to me. I cannot speak for my party, I must wait until my party speaks to me. I am not the leader of my party, I am only the servant of my party.”

As we stood there that day and listened to the President, his words amazed us. Our minds went back to legislation about which the President had not waited for his party to speak to him; we naturally thought of Panama Canal tolls and other bills on which the President had caused his party absolutely to reverse itself. He has not hesitated to lead his party when he believed that it was wise and expedient that his party should take certain action. That was the leadership which we had always hoped from him in regard to woman suffrage.

At the end of that interview came those words that were practically a direct command to us: “I will tell you, ladies, the thing which you must do. You must concert public opinion in this country in behalf of woman suffrage.” The group of women simply stood in the East Room of the White House, never moved, never turned for a little while. The secret service men came and pushed us back a little. Then the doors opened behind the President and he went out. The doors were shut in our faces; and those were the last words left with us: “Ladies, concert public opinion in behalf of woman suffrage.”

We went across the square very slowly, and when we came to our headquarters we sat down there in the drawing room. Everybody was thinking, considering what the President had said to us, and questioning, “What are we going to do now?”

Then Mrs. Blatch spoke those words that we all remember. She said that we could not be satisfied simply to go to the President once a year, or even many times a year, as we had been going. Think of the number of times we went in the four years of President Wilson’s first administration!

“But now,” said Mrs. Blatch, “we must go to him every day, we must have a continuous delegation to the President of the United States, if he is to realize the never-ceasing, insistent demand of women that he take action where he is responsible.

“We may not be admitted within the doors, but we can at least stand at the gates. We may not be allowed to raise our voices and speak to the President, but we can address him just the same, because our message to him will be inscribed upon the banners which we will carry in our hands. Let us post our silent sentinels at the gates of the White House.”

You can remember the way in which that suggestion was received.

The silent sentinels started out the next day. On the 10th of January that straight, steady, line left Headquarters, each woman with a banner in her hand. They marched down Madison Place, swung up the Avenue and took their places at the gates of the White House.

You remember the banners that they carried, the banners that a good many of us learned to love, the purple, white and gold, and those which said: “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?” “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” Those were the banners which met the President as he came in that first morning.

If our pickets had not done anything more than stand there that first day, they would have accomplished much for the Federal Amendment, because through the press millions and millions of people were reached on that one day and made to think of national woman suffrage.

On the 14th day of May Mr. J. A. H. Hopkins arranged an interview with the President for a committee consisting of five people, four men, each representing a political party, and the representative of the Woman’s Party. We each had a different theme to present to the President in argument for the federal amendment. I told him that I did not believe he knew how well his own words, his own writings interpret the spirit of the women working for suffrage. I continued:

“Mr. President, the words you spoke in Congress on the night of the 2d of April, when in the concluding part of your war address you said, ‘We shall fight for the things we have always carried nearest our hearts, for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government,’ exactly express the reason that we women never cease to work for woman suffrage. That is the thing we carry nearest our hearts, the democracy for which we fight. Don’t you see that those words of yours exactly interpret the spirit of our hearts?” The tears came into the President’s eyes. He was moved, obviously affected, for he loved these words of his.

After each one of the men had presented his particular reason for regarding this as a war measure, the President said: “I am free to tell you that this is a matter which is daily pressing upon my mind for reconsideration.”

Do you wonder that I smiled? How could I help it? Had we not been standing at his gates every day for four whole months? From the 10th of January to the 14th of May, those banners had been the chief sight which met the President’s eyes every time he went out and every time he came in. Do you wonder that he said the matter daily pressed upon his mind for reconsideration?

If there were no other thing that we could point to and say: “This is a result the picket line has accomplished,” those words of the President would be a remarkably significant thing. Was it not worth standing there through the cold weather and on the hot days which began to come early in the summer? Was it not worth even going to prison for, to have national woman suffrage daily in the mind of the President?

We know very well, however, that that was not the only thing which that picket line accomplished. Truly, I do not know how we could have kept alive the woman suffrage question in the war session of Congress if it had not been for the banners that we held, not only at the White House, but also on Capitol Hill.

The Congressmen who talked to us about not enfranchising women because this nation was so concerned with the affairs of the war met the banners standing there: “England and Russia are enfranchising their women in war-time; how long must American women wait for liberty? And so all during the war session, woman suffrage was kept alive because the banners were the visible evidence of the demand of women in all parts of the country that this question of democracy at home should be settled at a time when we fight for democracy abroad.

On the 20th of June, a banner was carried out to receive the Russian envoys as they drove through the gate, and a passerby tore it down because he did not like the truth told upon it. Nothing more happened that day. The banners stood there just the same, purple, white and gold, brought out in place of the torn one.

On the night of the 21st of June Major Pullman came to our headquarters and told us that we must not carry out any more banners. When we answered, “This is a well-considered policy which we have adopted; and we can not tell you on the spur of the moment that we will not do this thing merely because you give this command,” he said: “I will give you until nine o’clock tomorrow morning. Call me up at my office and tell me what you are going to do.” Are you surprised that the next morning we called up Major Pullman and said to him: “Major Pullman, we are going out with our banners.” And we went.

Lucy Burns and Katherine Morey went to the White House, and when they arrived there, spread out between them the banner with the inscription, “We shall fight for the things we have always carried nearest out hearts, for democracy” and so on. For fear that the police might not recognize this laudable sentiment, we carefully inscribed on the bottom, “President Wilson’s war message to Congress, April 2, 1917.” This should have been perfectly safe–quoting the President’s words at his own gate that morning. But Miss Burns and Miss Morey had been there only about two minutes when there was a police woman standing beside them, saying, “I place you under arrest.”

They answered, as we had agreed they should, thinking that here was a question which was absolutely unanswerable, “On what charge do you arrest us?” And the answer came back, “On the charge of obstructing traffic.” Major Pullman apparently had been at work over night. He had been finding out just as we had found out that there is no law against carrying a banner; he had found out just as we had known always that you cannot arrest a person for peacefully picketing. But on the charge of obstructing traffic a few days later six women were sentenced to three days in the District Jail.

On the 4th of July a splendid group of women, twelve of them, walked out with their banner, “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” And while speaker Clark back of the White House on the Ellipse, was making those ringing speeches which are always made on the 4th of July about liberty and the government of the people, quoting the Declaration of Independence, the women who bore a quotation from the Declaration of Independence in front of the White House, were arrested and also sentenced to three days in jail.

Then the 14th of July rolled around, and on that day they were celebrating in Washington the Fall of the Bastille. At the same time those celebrations were going on, sixteen women went out of our headquarters with banners that read, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”–the slogan of the French Revolution. Those women were sentenced to sixty days in the work-house at Occoquan.

I suppose we all recognize that poor Judge Mullowney was not responsible for this. Major Pullman, too, was not responsible for the sentence which was pronounced on that day. We recognized back of it all, back of the arrests and back of the sentences, the authority of the Administration.

After three days the women sentenced to sixty days were pardoned by the President. Women who were arrested at the gates about the middle of August were sentenced to thirty days at Occoquan. We never knew exactly how many days we would receive when we went out with a banner, because the policy of the administration varied constantly.

The women who carried banners the 4th of September received sixty days.

Then came the time when Alice Paul went out, carrying the banner that we all know so well now, taken from the President’s own words again, “The time has come to conquer or submit, for us there is but one choice, we have made it.” On her the outrageous sentence of seven months was imposed, apparently with the idea that in the person of Alice Paul they had seized the one who inspired the demonstrations, the woman responsible for the apparently irrepressible demand on the part of women.

Such a stupid government! The imprisonment of Alice Paul aroused such a fire of burning indignation that women everywhere were stirred, that protests came in thousands to the President and women came in person to voice their protests and to voice it in the most effective way they could find. Forty-one women appeared on the picket line on the 10th of November. The demand had not been silenced.

And the answer that came to those women was varying terms of imprisonment, from six days for Mrs. Nolan, a woman seventy-three years of age, to six months for Lucy Burns, another “ringleader.”

We know what happened when those women demanded that they be treated as political prisoners, and, as a protest against the treatment imposed upon them, went on hunger-strike. The hunger-strike called attention to their just demands, and a storm of indignation was aroused in every part of the country. The effect was sure and came quickly. All suffrage prisoners were released.

We have a right to believe that the government at last recognizes the untenable position it has maintained when it has declared that we fight for democracy–and refused democracy to those at home; when it sends millions of men to fight for it in Europe and imprisons and tortures women who struggle for it here.

Certainly those things the pickets have done, certainly the suffering women have shown they are willing to endure has had this effect–that our government is spurred to action. Those who say they are friends have hung back and been slow to act; we believe they have been roused to see the urgency of immediate action. Those who were enemies are now taking the position that agitation which grows more and more intense must be ended, at least removed from the capital and scattered among the legislatures of forty-eight states.

We believe that we occupy this position today, why? Because of the picketing. Because of the imprisonment of those women, the situation has become intense, and the only answer to it is action. That is the reason we believe that when the suffrage amendment comes to a vote in the present Congress, it will pass.

But suppose the vote when it is taken does not win the amendment? What have we in store for us? Why, we can simply go on doing what we have done, we can simply go on pressing with every means at our command that this thing should be done, we can go on lobbying for it just as we have lobbied–how insistent and how incessant that lobbying has been!–we can go on organizing for it as we have organized. And certainly we can go on demonstrating, giving right here in Washington the visualization of all this sentiment which does exist, we know it exists, in all parts of our country.

Our course is very plain before us. We have tried the things we have thought best in the last five years; we know pretty well where we stand; we know what is good and what is not good; we know what to discard and what to use to the very limit of our ability. Those are our future plans, to go right straight on until the amendment is won.

The text of this speech is taken from the transcript published in The Suffragist, Vol. V, #98, December 22, 1917, pp. 9-10.

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