Adapted from Jeremy McCarter's Young Radicals, the story of five American radicals and their fight for their ideals.
Most days we take democracy for granted: We cast our votes, we pay our taxes. But sometimes Americans are called to account. We are challenged to prove that our commitment to freedom and self-determination is genuine, and not just lofty phrases and old routines.
On June 20, 1917, that call comes with unusual urgency — and it comes twice.
At the White House, Woodrow Wilson prepares to defend America’s democratic convictions for some skeptical and vitally important guests. Two months earlier, he had sent the United States into World War I on the Allied side, joining Britain, France, and Russia in their fight against Germany. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” he had declared. But the Russians — that is, the leaders of the socialist government that overthrew the czar — aren’t sure he means it. If he can’t persuade the visiting emissaries that America’s democratic commitment is genuine, and not a cover for old-fashioned imperial gain, Russia might quit the war, taking Allied hopes of victory with them.
Outside the White House, a pair of women brace themselves to demonstrate exactly the kind of commitment that Wilson has in mind, though not remotely in the way he wants it demonstrated. As the Russians’ car draws near the White House gates, and with a huge crowd watching, they unfurl a wide banner:
To the Envoys of Russia
President Wilson and Envoy Root are deceiving Russia. They say, “We are a democracy. Help us win a world war so that democracies may survive.”
We, the Women of America, tell you that America is not a democracy. Twenty million American Women are denied the right to vote. President Wilson is the chief opponent of their national enfranchisement.
Help us make this nation really free. Tell our government that it must liberate its people before it can claim free Russia as an ally.
The car rolls through the gates without stopping. The diplomats couldn’t have read the banner, even if they had understood English. But the demonstration has an explosive effect all the same. It makes international news. It opens a volatile new chapter in the suffragists’ 70-year struggle for the vote. It introduces a stark new dynamic in the longer fight to secure civil rights for all Americans.
The president has stood before the world and made a novel claim: that the United States merits a leadership role because of its commitment to ideals. Alice Paul, the diminutive 32-year-old leader of the National Woman’s Party, stands before the president and refuses to let him get away with it. She knows that American realities do not match American ideals, and she is determined to keep repeating this inconvenient fact until they do.
What she doesn’t know is how much that determination is about to cost her.
The adversarial tone of that banner is the opposite of how Paul’s campaign had begun. Four years earlier, on the eve of Wilson’s inauguration, she had revitalized the moribund suffrage movement with an enormous and unprecedented parade. Eight thousand women had marched up Pennsylvania Avenue to secure a suffrage amendment to the Constitution. It was a remarkably bold demand — for a generation, suffragists had scratched out their limited gains state-by-state, thinking a federal amendment was unrealistic — but an affirmative one: They depicted suffrage as the fulfillment of America’s ideals.
When Wilson and his fellow Democrats kept refusing to use their majorities in both houses of Congress to enfranchise women, Paul had to be more resourceful still. Instead of focusing on the power that women didn’t have (they still lacked the vote in 39 states), she focused on the power they did have: how to harness it, to wield it most effectively. She formed the National Woman’s Party to amalgamate the strength of women in the nine enfranchised states and use it against every Democrat who held a national office. This antagonized everybody. The staid ladies who ran the much larger National American Woman Suffrage Association rebuked her, said she was sabotaging their state-by-state campaigns. The Democrats — many of whom supported suffrage, outside the party’s base of support in the South, anyway — thought she was ungrateful. Her black supporters, who were vital to the cause, continued to protest the way she tried to assuage the white supremacists whose votes she would need to ratify a suffrage amendment. (Black women had been asked to march at the back of that 1913 parade, an ignominious measure to keep southern whites from bolting. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a civil rights hero since Paul’s school days, refused to comply, striding out of the parade while it was underway, taking her rightful place.)
Paul’s relentless focus on the suffrage amendment made her impervious to complaint, from friend or foe alike. She was small and soft-spoken, a bookish Quaker with large gray eyes, but she was also (in one colleague’s words) “swift, alert, almost panther-like in her movements.” Opposition just meant that she and her legions of committed young women had to work harder. So they did.
The picketing campaign at the White House had been underway for five months before the sudden escalation of the Russia banner. Paul had decided that the only way to drive up the pressure on Wilson, and get him to support an amendment, was to needle him constantly, right there under his own windows, in full view of the country and the world. So what if the sidewalk was cold? They could stand on hot bricks. So what if they were called “unladylike”? It was a badge of honor.
Yet for all her acuity, Paul didn’t foresee that Wilson would declare war on Germany. Nor could she anticipate how America would respond: by rapidly going insane.
A dark paradox takes hold. To win a war for democracy abroad, Americans are undermining their democracy at home. The government uses the newly-passed Espionage Act to criminalize dissent, banning socialist magazines from the mail. Vigilantes abuse and sometimes kill German-speaking immigrants. Union offices are raided. Soldiers break up a peace parade. Nobody is ready for the speed or brutality of the change, least of all the women who insist on their share of democracy, the ones who will soon have cause to look back fondly to the days when they were merely called unladylike.
On June 21, the “silent sentinels” resume their familiar posts at the White House gates. Some hold the purple, white, and gold pennants of the movement; others hold a banner repeating the previous day’s message about Russia.
A crowd forms: uneasy, seething. From Paul’s perspective half a block away at Cameron House, their headquarters, it must look like moths swarming on silk.
A woman in the crowd — the mother of a son in the armed forces — stalks back and forth in front of the pickets. She announces that she will spit on the banners if the men will come with her.
With one will, they attack.
“Traitors!” and “Shame!” and “Sedition!” they cry, falling on the suffragists, ripping their banners to pieces, knocking the women down.
One suffragist climbs up the White House fence, trying to keep the pennant above the mob’s reach, but the woman scratches and claws at her, wrests the pennant away, and throws it to the crowd. They roar and rip it to shreds.
The police take a desultory attitude toward the riot, which now involves several thousand people. Eventually they bestir themselves, and the fighting stops.
The riot is widely reported in the national press, just as Paul had wished. The suffragists of the National Woman’s Party are almost universally called “militants” now, even though, strictly speaking, they did nothing militant. In England, where Paul had received an early tutorial in suffrage agitation from Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, women had thrown bricks and started fires; at the White House, the women merely stood holding signs. They suffered violence — they didn’t perpetrate it.
President Wilson says nothing about the riot that unfolds literally under his windows. It’s another gift that he unwittingly gives Paul. Washington is run by federal appointees, which means that the suffragists can hold Wilson responsible for anything and everything that happens to them.
And so a second, darker paradox takes hold. In order to win the security and dignity that would come from enfranchisement, suffragists must expose themselves to danger and shame. The more grievously they suffer on the sidewalks outside the White House, the more pressure they apply to the man inside.
It is a question of who will crack first: Alice Paul or Woodrow Wilson.
Day after day in the weeks that follow, pickets raise their banners, crowds menace them, and cops make arrests — sometimes peaceably, sometimes violently, but almost always of the women holding the signs, not their attackers. The district attorney, after much urgent flipping through statute books, finds a charge that might stick: “obstructing traffic.” He uses it even though the women (who stand in small groups on sidewalks) do not, strictly speaking, obstruct traffic.
When the pickets are brought before a judge, they refuse to cooperate. When they are fined, they refuse to pay. Paul had not expected it to come to this, but it has: American women — largely middle-class and upper-middle-class women, dozens of them — are going to prison for demanding their freedom.
America’s young radicals cheer the suffragists’ courage. “MAGNIFICENT. PERFECT FROM EVERY POSSIBLE POINT OF VIEW. ENDLESS ADMIRATION,” wires Max Eastman, editor of the freewheeling socialist magazine The Masses, which is about to be shut down by the government. John Reed, the swashbuckling poet, war correspondent, and all-around troublemaker, pays his tribute to Paul’s activists in person. At a welcome-home breakfast on the morning of the first prisoners’ release, he congratulates his “fellow convicts” and encourages them to keep fighting. He quotes Walt Whitman: “I will write a song for the president full of menacing signs / And, back of it all, millions of discontented eyes.”
Eastman and Reed are, as usual, in the minority. Most Americans view the pickets with fury or horror. Congressmen, even some who are sympathetic to suffrage, complain about this insult to the president in wartime. Nobody is more exasperated than Carrie Chapman Catt, the fierce, 58-year-old president of NAWSA. She is in the midst of a painstaking campaign to win a New York State referendum to enfranchise women. It is the linchpin of her “winning plan,” which focuses on state-level victories that drive up pressure at the federal level. The whole mighty edifice is undermined by Alice Paul’s antics.
Catt writes to Paul directly, asking her to stop picketing “for the sake of the political freedom of women, and our hope of success in this country in the near future.” Less diplomatically, NAWSA’s magazine runs an editorial suggesting that men are manipulating the pickets “as grown-ups encourage a froward child.” The magazine encourages the American people to ignore the wayward women. The editorial is reprinted in the official bulletin of the Committee on Public Information, the government’s newly formed propaganda bureau, which suggests that the Wilson administration feels the same way.
As ever, Paul ignores every demand to quit. She remains so obstinate that two officials from NAWSA’s New York affiliate finally travel to Washington, intent on confronting her face-to-face.
They reach Cameron House on July 11, 1917, but they do not get to see her.
She has collapsed. She has been taken to a sanitarium. The papers are calling it a nervous breakdown.
Alice Paul didn’t grow up a crusader; she wasn’t a martinet. She had been an athlete in her school days, and a good one. Always on the small side, she won and kept winning because of stamina and a blunt refusal to lose. But her apprenticeship with the Pankhursts had cost her some resources that never returned. Arrested by British authorities for demanding the vote, she had gone on a hunger strike in jail, and been subjected to a barbaric force-feeding. She looks older than her 32 years in 1917, largely because she treats her physical and mental capacities as a reserve fund to be tapped anytime the suffrage cause runs short. The night before one major demonstration at the White House, when Cameron House had filled up with picketers, she slept on the fire escape, waking to find snow on her sleeping bag.
The picketing campaign had added military generalship to an already crushing list of responsibilities: raising money, propping up morale, keeping the public focused amid the distraction of war. (The previous year, when the cleaning lady had fallen ill, Paul had done her job, too.) Soon after the demonstrations turned violent, the owners of Cameron House told her to move out. No wonder people thought she was having a nervous breakdown.
In fact, the doctor discovers a different ailment. When fourteen members of the executive committee gather around her sickbed, she tells them that she has been diagnosed with Bright’s disease. It’s the same kidney condition that had killed President Wilson’s wife a few years earlier.
The doctor has told Alice that she has a year to live.
Reeling from the news, the suffragists do what she asks, and patch together plans to keep the organization going. Lucy Burns, Paul’s associate since the suffrage parade four years earlier, will lead in her absence. The committee votes unanimously to take care of Paul during her illness. Somehow they will find a way.
The pickets, newly energized, return to their posts the next day, which happens to be Bastille Day. But now they face reprisals beyond anything they have suffered so far. The women arrested that day are sentenced to extraordinarily long sentences: sixty days, in some cases. And it’s not any old jail this time; it’s Occoquan, a work camp located an hour away in Virginia. The men who run the prison attempt to break the wills of these well-to-do white ladies by forcing them to share facilities with black prostitutes. It doesn’t work — the women do not share the guards’ racism — but it shows that the authorities are willing to use psychological warfare in addition to physical force.
Dudley Field Malone, a longtime friend and ally of President Wilson, tries to make him see the injustice of these long sentences — and, more generally, of denying women the vote. (He is having an affair with Doris Stevens, one of the Occoquan-bound picketers.) Malone’s message is echoed by J.A.H. Hopkins, an even closer and longer-standing friend of Wilson’s, whose wife is bound for the workhouse, too. After ignoring the hundreds of women who have spent half a year trying to persuade him, Wilson decides to listen to these men. He pardons all the pickets.
A reporter travels to Paul’s bedside to get her reaction, finding her “wan and big-eyed.” She says she is obliged to the president, but the Woman’s Party has no intention of changing course.
“The pickets have brought the issue before the eyes of the world and put Wilson in the final corner,” she says. “Now he has got to the point of practically declaring for the federal amendment, and we have placed him where he will be obliged to do something to prove that.”
The suffragists will be picketing again on Monday.
The most important detail of this interview is its location: Baltimore. Paul’s friend Dora Lewis had insisted that she get a second opinion at Johns Hopkins. The doctors there tell her she’s not dying; she was just so exhausted, mentally and physically, that it looked like she was.
A month after her collapse, and much sooner than her doctors would like, she returns to Washington, eager to resume command. Every day now, the picketing draws closer to being a three-way battle between suffragists, rioters, and police. The women do all they can to help it along.
In mid-August, the suffragists deploy their most incendiary banner yet:
Have you forgotten how you sympathized with the poor Germans because they were not self-governed?
Twenty million American women are not self-governed.
Take the beam out of your own eye.
Naval reservists in crisp white uniforms see the signs, grab the signs, and destroy the signs. Normally the cops put an end to such manhandling, but on this day, they hang back.
The men realize they can abuse the women with impunity. So they do.
As suffragists return to headquarters to replace the banners that have been destroyed, the men pursue them to Cameron House itself. When Lucy Burns emerges with a new banner, three men spring at her on the very doorstep, tearing the banner away.
There is now a mob, several thousand strong, blocking Madison Place in front of Cameron House. Anybody who emerges from the building is attacked. Alice Paul, who doesn’t often take part in picketing, gets knocked down by a man trying to seize her suffrage sash. She refuses to let go, so he drags her twenty feet across the sidewalk. She is less than a month removed from her hospital bed.
The suffragists refuse to surrender. They hang banners from the upper windows of the building. The men grab a ladder from the theater next door, tip it against the façade of Cameron House, climb up, and destroy them. Down on the street, the mob is hurling rotten eggs and tomatoes. Then somebody fires a gun. The bullet pierces a second-floor window and buries itself in the ceiling.
At last, more than an hour after the riot began, police reserves push the crowd back. They make few arrests.
The suffrage fight keeps growing more destructive; nobody seems able to stop it. The president refuses to endorse the federal amendment; Paul refuses to stop protesting his refusal; Catt can’t make Wilson move any faster or Paul any more slowly. The secretary of the navy orders sailors to stop attacking the women; they ignore him. On the night of the “Kaiser Wilson” riots, one of Paul’s lieutenants goes to a hardware store and orders a .38-caliber revolver with fifty bullets, to be delivered to Cameron House.
As the fighting in the streets gets hotter, so does Alice Paul’s rhetoric. Despite all the dangers of suggesting that something is awry with American democracy in the belligerent summer of 1917, she does more than suggest it — she proclaims it.
“We have no true democracy in this country, though we are fighting for democracy abroad,” she says. “Twenty million American citizens are denied a voice in their own government. We must let the public know that this intolerable situation exists because, toward women, President Wilson has adopted the attitude of an autocratic ruler. We have stood at the gates of the White House for six months in silent protest. We have gone to prison for asking for liberty at home. We have to make the situation definite and concrete.”
The logic is unimpeachable. A fresh escalation is necessary. It’s the only way to increase the pressure on Wilson, which she feels sure will eventually cause him to move as surely as steam drives a piston. But how can she do it? The ranks of picketers have thinned since the government started sentencing women to six months in Occoquan.
Like so many radicals, Paul faces the essential question of the idealist in wartime, the democrat called to account for democracy: How far will I go?
She gives her answer on the brisk morning of October 20, 1917. Four pickets report for duty that day, bundled against the chill.
They are led by Alice Paul herself.
Her banner quotes a war address by none other than President Wilson: “The time has come to conquer or submit; for us there can be but one choice — we have made it.”
She expects to be arrested, and she is. She is prepared for a jail sentence and gets it, though she is surprised that it is longer than any others: seven months. She asks her mother not to worry, trying to assure her, “It will merely be a delightful rest.” Maybe she believes it.
The judge sends her to the district jail. It’s not Occoquan, but it’s gruesome all the same. Severe and forbidding on the outside, it’s filthy and decrepit within. It’s so cold that prisoners wrap themselves in newspapers to stay warm. The cramped, crowded cells have open toilets that can be flushed only from the outside, by the guards. There are rats and bedbugs everywhere.
Paul’s experience in English prisons now serves her well. On her first night, she sees that the closed windows are forcing everyone to breathe foul air. She grabs the rope and pulls the window open. Two male guards try to pull her away. She clings to the rope, then to the iron bars, and doesn’t give up until they close her cell door behind her. And she’s still not done. She and the other inmates throw every loose object they can reach at the windows until they crack the glass.
In prison, as on the outside, Paul’s convictions put an immense strain on her body. The food is vile beyond belief, consisting of worm-ridden pork, bug-ridden soup, and stale bread. A few days of trying and failing to eat it leaves her so weak she can’t get out of bed.
The authorities hate her, but they can’t let her die. They carry her to the prison hospital. Grudgingly they offer her eggs and milk.
And once again Paul has to choose.
A few weeks earlier, at Occoquan, Lucy Burns had surreptitiously circulated a petition that made a radical claim: that the suffragists were political prisoners and should be treated accordingly. They demanded an end to solitary confinement; access to paper, books, and their lawyers; and freedom from the menial work that inmates at Occoquan were expected to do. One suffragist calls the petition “the first organized group action ever made in America to establish the status of political prisoners.” But it hadn’t worked: The men who run the District of Columbia said they didn’t know what the term “political prisoner” meant.
Paul thinks about Burns’s protest as she regards those much-needed eggs and that cold glass of milk. “The hunger strike is a desperate weapon,” she had said a few months earlier, “which should only be used as a last resort in resistance of authority.”
This is her last resort. She uses it.
Paul pushes the food away. At the other end of the hospital, so does Rose Winslow, a suffragist and social worker from Brooklyn. The guards try to intimidate Paul, to confuse her; they threaten to take her someplace worse than the prison hospital. A day passes, then another. Still she won’t eat.
“Now they demand a right which has never been recognized in this country,” one exasperated reporter writes, “to be regarded when in prison as different from the other prisoners.”
Paul does indeed demand that right, but not just for the suffragists. “We are protecting the rights of political offenders everywhere in the nation,” she says in one of the rare messages that she can slip out of jail.
Like Max Eastman, a socialist who stumbled into being a free-speech crusader when the government shut down his magazine, Paul is forced by her suffrage beliefs to become a pioneer in the field of political incarceration. Eastman and Paul are, in effect, architects of a new infrastructure for radicalism, helping to build systems that make other radical protests possible.
The treatment of Paul and other suffragists is beginning to upset even people who don’t believe in suffrage. President Wilson finally hears enough of these complaints to ask for an investigation of prison conditions. The district commissioners send an outside doctor to see Paul.
He asks about her cause: how she agitates for it, her feelings about President Wilson, why she is so fixated on President Wilson?
Paul realizes that the man is a psychiatrist. He is looking for a reason to commit her to an insane asylum.
The doctor declines to do that, but Paul soon lands in more distress anyway. She is placed in the care, if that’s the word, of the prison physician, Dr. J. A. Gannon. “I believe I have never in my life before feared anything or any human being,” Paul will say later. “But I confess I was afraid of Dr. Gannon.”
After seventy-eight hours of waiting for her to eat, Dr. Gannon orders her carried to the hospital’s mental ward. The guards take off the door and replace it with iron bars, which means there is nothing to muffle the shrieks of the lunatics. They scream for hours. Soon so does she.
There are several ways to force an unwilling woman to eat, especially if she weighs only ninety-five pounds, has recently been ill, and is weak from malnutrition. Restraints — either straps or the weight of guards or nurses — secure the arms, the legs, and the chest. Then a tube is forced into the mouth and down the throat to the stomach. If the prisoner refuses to unclench her teeth — which some do, until their strength fails — then the tube is pushed up one nostril, down the throat, and into the stomach. A nurse whips together a pint of eggs and milk, and it is poured into the retching body of the patient. Then the tube is removed, and sometimes there is blood, and often there is sobbing, but rarely is there death.
The authorities assure President Wilson that “no force or persuasion [is] necessary” to feed Alice Paul.
Every person who knows her knows that is a lie.
Paul is taciturn about the experience, and the physical and mental toll that it takes. Rose Winslow, who is also force-fed, is more forthcoming: “One feels so forsaken when one lies prone and people shove a pipe down one’s stomach.” It couldn’t have been any easier for Paul, based on what Winslow sees: “Miss Paul vomits much.”
Dr. Gannon doesn’t allow her doctor to check on her. Instead he orders a prison nurse to “observe” her, which means that once an hour, all night long, a bright white light floods her room. Alice Paul has asked for her political rights and now she is being tortured for it.
At Cameron House, the other suffragists are nearly frantic with a mix of worry and anger. In a show of solidarity, they decide to stage the biggest picket yet. Forty-one women — “our best and bravest,” according to Lucy Burns — march forth in waves. They hail from all over the country, and range from teenagers to septuagenarians.
They are arrested in bunches and brought to court. The judge, having lost his appetite for sending women to prison, surprises them by letting them go.
Two hours after leaving the courtroom, most of the women are back in front of the White House, picketing again. This time the judge sends them to jail.
They arrive at Occoquan on the evening of November 14, angrier and more determined than before. They demand to see the superintendent himself. Like Paul, they insist on being treated as political prisoners. They don’t realize what they are bringing on themselves.
The superintendent, a despot with “stiff white hair, blazing little eyes”, has heard more than enough of this talk. He orders the guards (all male, wearing street clothes) to put the women in their cells. It is the beginning of what the suffragists will later call “the night of terror.”
Some women are thrown headlong into metal beds; others are dropped spine-first onto benches. There are bruises and sprains; a couple of them, including Alice’s friend Dora Lewis, lose consciousness. When Lucy Burns calls to an ailing women to make sure she is all right, the guards handcuff her to the bars of her cell and leave her that way for the night.
The superintendent allows no one to see the prisoners. So it takes a while for the world to learn that he is threatening to beat them at the whipping post.
When word of the melee at Occoquan leaks out, a lawyer for the suffragists gets a writ of habeas corpus. He knows that lives are at stake. By this point, almost all of the imprisoned suffragists are on a hunger strike. Like Alice Paul in her student-athlete days, they will win by refusing to lose.
Ten days later, the imprisonments end as capriciously as they began. Nobody knows how direct a role the president played in letting the suffragists go, or in putting them there in the first place.
The imprisoned suffragists are allowed to go home. Many need to be carried to get there.
“The victory of our hunger strike is complete,” Paul declares. Of course, after everything the women have suffered, what else can she say?
Cameron House becomes a field hospital. Some of the suffragists recover in days; many are never quite the same. One young staffer from The Masses spent her incarceration thinking about poverty and injustice, and how even outside prison, she wasn’t really free: “Never would I recover from this wound, this ugly knowledge I had gained of what men were capable [of] in their treatment of each other.” This quickening in the social conscience of Dorothy Day, hero of the Catholic Worker movement, is an accidental result of making idealists suffer to realize their ideals.
But what if all that suffering really was for nothing? While Paul and her fellow militants were locked in godforsaken jail cells, the men of New York voted to amend the state constitution, enfranchising women. It is an enormous leap forward for the suffrage movement — “the Gettysburg of the woman suffrage movement,” according to Carrie Chapman Catt — but it happened largely because NAWSA spent years organizing at the state level, not because Alice Paul and the militants fought in Washington for the federal amendment.
On November 9, the second day of Paul’s force-feeding, Catt and a few other NAWSA leaders went to the White House to thank the president for supporting their New York campaign. Catt and Wilson had drawn closer together, in part because of their shared disdain for the militants. She spent an hour with the president, never once mentioning her fellow suffragist who was being tortured a few miles away.
“I see Alice Paul is in for 7 months,” Catt wrote to another NAWSA leader after Paul’s arrest. “Poor little misguided idiot. I suppose she will try the hunger fast. It is time for something new.”
It takes Alice Paul three weeks to regain her strength, rise from her sickbed, and continue her fight for women’s rights. Wilson, Catt, and even some of her former advisers are against her, but her conviction that she is doing the right thing for the right reason is enough to sustain her. To see her ideal made real, she is willing to go on suffering abuse — psychic, physical, or a combination of the two — more grievous than most of the doughboys will suffer for Woodrow Wilson’s.
She will keep finding new ways to bring her astounding political savvy and more astounding bravery to bear. She will burn Wilson’s speeches, she will even burn him in effigy, to protest his lack of support. She will inspire young women not to give up, making them share her conviction that the political equality of women “is worth sacrificing everything for, leisure, money, reputation, and even our lives.” Her words and the fact of her presence will help them withstand three more years of abuse — the insults, the arrests, the assaults.
At the end of those three years, they cast their first votes. ●
Jeremy McCarter is the author of Young Radicals, from which this story is adapted. He is the co-author, with Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton: The Revolution.
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