Photo: Harris & Ewing, from Library of Congress. Color: Post Emily.
Two votes are needed to pass the Suffrage Amendment in the Senate. Alas, it’s stalled. Time for more pressure on the President, to help get things moving again. In this demonstration, Suffragists “culture jam” a celebration of Lafayette, the Frenchman who helped in the American War of Independence.
How does a group of people who don’t have power get that power from those who do have power? Women could not vote. The people who held positions that could grant that right were put there by voters.
Suffrage—the right to vote, didn’t exist for the entire nation. There were some states—suffrage states— where women had the right to vote. This September 1918 photo is from the campaign to get the Woman’s Suffrage Amendment passed by Congress and ratified by a majority of the states.
Five things you need to know about this photo of the Lafayette Square demonstration
All five points of this story take place during the year 1918.
1. 1918 Began in Victory.
January 10, 1918 was a victory. One year to the day after the silent sentinels first stood in front of the White House gates holding banners asking the President to press Congress to pass the Suffrage Amendment, the House of Representatives voted for the amendment. It succeeded by a two-thirds vote. One down, one to go. To pass the amendment by a two-thirds vote in the Senate and send it to the state legislatures for ratification, they needed eleven Senate votes. Women in the two main suffrage organizations went all-out to persuade those eleven senators to vote yes. After a year of wielding confrontational pickets and banners, the National Woman’s Party resumed the everyday work of persuasion and lobbying. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), with its 48-state strategy to win suffrage state-by-state, stayed their course of advocacy work. (They strongly disagreed with the other group’ picketing.) Suffragists lobbied. They asked influential dignitaries to persuade senators. They drew on the press and legislatures in home states to persuade senators. They initiated letter and telegram campaigns from constituents. They succeeded. Nine senators changed their positions from NO suffrage amendment to YES. Nine down. Two more to go.
2. A Vote? Nope. A Filibuster.
The Senator who chaired the Senate Woman Suffrage Committee scheduled debate and a vote for late June, 1918. When the amendment came to the floor, an opposing Senator spoke and filibustered the vote. The committee chairman withdrew the motion. Now what? One Senator told the suffragists that the measure was dead for this session. (Parliamentary trivia: In order for a measure to pass, both the House and Senate must vote on and pass it during the same session of congress. Once there’s a new session of congress, both houses have to start over.) Would the President use his powers of persuasion to win those two votes and to get the measure scheduled for a vote?
3. Put the pressure on.
The National Woman’s Party leaders said, We’ve been doing standard advocacy work for seven months. It’s time to ramp up the pressure on President Wilson again. With banners. Let’s pick the Lafayette Park and Lafayette Statue across the street from the White House. They massed there in large numbers. As soon as someone stood up to speak, the police arrested her. The next person stood. Began speaking. Was arrested. Again and again, each speaker stood, spoke and was arrested. 47 women were arrested. They were tried on flimsy charges — “climbing a statue,” “holding a meeting in public grounds” in a farcical court session, and sentenced. The suffragists’ always defended themselves based on the first amendment where they were assembling and petitioning the government for the redress of their grievances. The judge sentenced them to jail terms of 10 to 15 days. (In March, an appeals court had determined that the prior year’s arrests and out-of-district workhouse imprisonment were illegal.) The women were taken to a jail facility inside the District of Columbia; it was unused since it was condemned a decade earlier. Summer swelter outside, inside the prisoners shivered in cold, dark, surrounded by dripping walls and foul stench. They immediately went on hunger strike. Many fell ill. (This was during the 1918 flu epidemic while flu cases were still on the rise.) The Woman’s Party put its publicity machine in motion. Once the women were released from prison, the Army Colonel in charge of the grounds of the White House and Lafayette Park granted the group a permit to hold their demonstrations; the National Woman’s Party advised they’d do so once their sick members recovered.
September, 1918. September 6 was the birthday of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French nobleman who aided in the American Revolution. The United States was fighting in World War 1 in Europe. General Pershing visited Lafayette’s grave in France, and said, “Lafayette, we are here.” The nation saw itself as repaying its debt to Lafayette. The Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution held a ceremony in Washington at the Lafayette Statue to commemorate his deeds for this young nation in a time of great need. The President attended the ceremony, along with many dignitaries.
Eleven days later, while Lafayette and the founding of the United States was still in mind, the Women’s Party held their demonstration for suffrage. The day before the demonstration, word reached the National Woman’s Party that the Senate would not schedule a vote during the current session of Congress. A few hours before the demonstration took place, President Wilson hosted a women’s political group at the White House. The National Women’s Party leaders waited for word about the White House meeting Did the President use the occasion to act on the suffrage amendment? No? He just spoke beautiful words? Well then. Plans for the demonstration were shifted accordingly. Everyone, it seems, was remembering Lafayette anew in light of current events. This demonstration would do likewise.
The speaker said, “Lafayette, we are here!” Continuing a theme from picketing of the previous year, that it’s hypocritical to go abroad and fight a war for democracy when 20 million women at home lack a voice in their own government, the speech asked one again for the help of Lafayette in bringing freedom to women in America.
Lafayette, we are here!
We, the women of the United States, denied the liberty which you helped to gain, and for which we have asked in vain for sixty years, turn to you to plead for us.
Speak, Lafayette! Dead these hundred years but still living in the hearts of the American people. Speak again to plead for us, condemned like the bronze woman at your feet, to a silent appeal. She offers you a sword. Will you not use the sword of the spirit, mightier far than the sword she holds out to you?
Will you not ask the great leader of our democracy to look upon the failure of our beloved country to be in truth the place where every one is free and equal and entitled to a share in the government? Let that outstretched hand of yours pointing to the White House recall to him his words and promises, his trumpet call for all of us to see that the world is made safe for democracy.
As our army now in France spoke to you there, saying, “Here we are to help your country fight for liberty," will you not speak here and now for us, a little band with no army, no power but justice and right, no strength but in our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and win a great victory again in this country by giving us the opportunity we ask to be heard through the Susan B. Anthony Amendment?
Lafayette, we are here!
Then they took the words spoken by the President just that afternoon, and set them aflame, saying,
“For five years, women have appealed to this President and his Party for political freedom. The President has given words, and Words, and words. Today, women receive more words.”
5. Words AND Action.
Results! The next day, the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Woman Suffrage announced he would put the suffrage amendment back on the calendar. The women immediately ceased their demonstrations. At the end of the month, while the amendment was under consideration, the President took the unusual step of appearing at the Senate and making a speech about suffrage. Here, Wilson combined words and action— personally advocating for the amendment in front of the entire lawmaking body. He said:
“We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not a partnership of privilege and right?”
The next day, October 1, the Senate voted. The amendment did not meet the two-thirds threshold. It failed by two votes.
- Working Women’s Picket
- We Know We Will Be Arrested Today
- Lafayette, We Are Here
- Senators, We Are Coming For You
Harris & Ewing, Washington, D.C. Suffrage demonstration at Lafayette Statue to get the last vote in the Senate before June 4. [Sept. 16] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
Gallagher, Robert S. “‘I was Arrested, Of Course…’ An interview with the famed suffragette, Alice Paul” American Heritage, Volume 25 Issue 2, 1974
Gluck, Sherna, Ed. From Parlor to Prison: Five American Suffragists Talk About Their Lives. An Oral history. Vintage Books, 1976
Harper, Ida Husted, Ed. The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol 5. Fowler & Wells, 1922. [google books link]
Irwin, Inez Haynes. The Story of the Woman's Party Harcort Brace, 1921. [google books link]
Stevens, Doris. Jailed For Freedom. Boni and Liveright, 1920 [google books link]
Terborg-Penn, Rosalynn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Indiana University Press, 1998.
Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill, Ed. One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement. NewSage Press. 1995.