Working Women’s Picket

Working Women's Picket, February 1917

Photo: Harris & Ewing, from Library of Congress.
Color: Post Emily.

Wage-Earners Marching to the White House Gates, February 18, 1917: Photograph of four members of contingent of wage-earning women pickets, walking in suffrage procession on city sidewalk. They wear coats, hats, and suffrage sashes, and carry suffrage banners. Others similarly clad look on with banners from sidelines in background. 

Suffrage Postcard Series, Card 1 (Other Cards: Two Three Four)

Who are these people? What are they doing? What’s the backstory? And — most important — how does a group of people who do not have power gain that power? If you cannot vote, how do you convince The Powers That Be that have their jobs as President or Congressman to give you voting powers when they got those jobs through the power of the vote?

Five things you need to know about the Wage Earners Picket photo

A quick history — from the 1848 beginnings of the suffrage movement to this 1917 photo — in five steps.

1. The Suffrage Movement from 1848-1910.

The Suffrage movement — to seek voting rights for those who did not have them — sprang out of a drive to abolish slavery and expand human rights, especially for white women and African American men and women. The movement paused for the Civil War. In the war’s aftermath, suffragists disputed over which disempowered group would be the first to be granted the right to vote. (The fourteenth amendment used the word “male” and the fifteenth granted voting rights to African American males.) This was hard for African American women, who were torn between gender priorities or racial priorities. The rift was deepened by forces outside the movement, whether by political strategy (C’mon, be realistic; we can’t do it all at once) or by an alliance and funding that supported white women to help perpetuate the financial backer’s racist agenda. How does a group that does not have power gain that power? Navigate among hard choices, and work with a powerful opponent who will concede one small step at a time. In the suffrage schism of 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton set their focus on women’s suffrage and created their own group.

Two decades later, in 1890, both suffrage wings reunited to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone were the matriarchs of the movement. The next generation of leaders were Carrie Chapman Catt and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, who took over in 1900. During this early era, Anthony drafted a suffrage constitutional amendment. It made it to the floor of Congress exactly once, and was defeated. The NAWSA group got to work on a different goal— winning the right to vote state by state. By 1896, four states in the west enfranchised women: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho. Over the next dozen years, they laid groundwork in every state and set the stage for women suffrage wins that would begin to accumulate state-by-state starting in 1910.

2. The early 1910s.

Starting with Washington State in 1910, seven western states granted women full suffrage over the next four years: California in 1911, Arizona, Oregon and Kansas in 1912, and Montana and Nevada in 1914. Other states granted women partial suffrage—the ability to vote in municipal elections or in presidential elections, or both. The National American Woman Suffrage Association with its 48-state strategy had an organizational structure to match (auxiliaries in every state). Between 1912 and early 1914, NAWSA would spawn another suffrage group. 

Alice Paul, returned to New Jersey from studies and suffrage work in England, assessed the American suffrage movement. How does a group of people who lack power gain power? They can go state by state, town by town, city by city, block by block and persuade a majority of male voters to vote for a referendum—and repeat this over and over and over again for each state. Or, they can focus on a smaller group of men to convince— members of the United States Congress— to pass a suffrage amendment. In late 1912, she approached NAWSA and volunteered to work on an amendment campaign based in Washington, DC. NAWSA appointed her head of its Congressional Committee, a tiny nub of an entity that had been run by one person doing scant work. Ms. Paul was given no resources and told to raise her own funds. Alice Paul established an office, joined by Lucy Burns and a small work group and set to work creating a huge pageant of women to parade through the capital on the day before the inauguration of the next president, Woodrow Wilson. That pageant featuring women was the first public spectacle featuring women in public.

3. Wilson’s first term: Vigorous work to an impasse.

President Wilson was inaugurated in 1913 and re-elected in 1916. Alice Paul saw him as the key person to get the suffrage amendment through Congress. As President, he held a highly influential position, and he was head of the Democratic Party—the political party that controlled both houses of Congress. (Note: The Democratic Party of 100 years ago was not the “big tent” party of today; the Jim Crow / Segregationist South was a Democratic Party stronghold. The major swing in party alignments to their current form was yet to come.)

Following that spectacular pageant at the inauguration, the Congressional Committee sent multiple deputations to meet with Mr. Wilson to discuss women’s suffrage. Over time, his stated position shifted ever-so-slightly. As far as his actions went, he was the same. Say nice words but do nothing.

(A year or so after Alice Paul and Lucy Burns headed up the NAWSA Congressional Committee, differences in strategy, governance and funding made it best for the offshoot group to part ways from its founding group. The funding arm that Alice Paul and Lucy Burns created — the Congressional Union— became a full fledged organization that soon after became the National Woman’s Party.)

How do you gain power if you don’t have it? Use every power of persuasion and advocacy you can. They educated, created petitions, held mass gatherings. They built support for women’s suffrage and publicly demonstrated that support for all to see.

They lobbied members of the House and Senate, identifying suffrage allies and urged them to make progress on the amendment. It was as effective as pushing string. Back to the President once again. At an early January meeting with Wilson not long after his re-election, he declined to act on their behalf and told them to “concert public opinion” — get more people on your side. As though they had not been doing that for the last several years. Their reaction was a 1917-version of You Gotta Be Kidding Me. They dusted off out their What happens if he says no? strategy, and implemented their Perpetual Delegation the very next morning.

4. A Perpetual Delegation

Alice Paul said, We’re going to send a perpetual delegation to the President in order to move suffrage from the far edge of the President’s attention right to front and center. On January 10, 1917, Silent Sentinels walked ceremoniously from the National Woman’s Party headquarters to the White House gates, bearing tri-color banners and ones that read, “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?” and “Mr. President, How long must women wait for liberty?” The Silent Sentinels stood at the gates holding the banners. Though they called themselves “Silent Sentinels”, the press began called their activity “picketing” and the women who held them “pickets.” The picket name stuck. The picketing Silent Sentinels were at the gates Monday through Saturdays when Congress was in session. They did this for most of the year 1917.

3. Silent Sentinels mixing it up for “theme days.”

    The suffragists picketed day in and day out. Not long after they began, they introduced theme days, where suffragists from a certain region held state days. Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York held state days, for instance. There were also association groups, such as representatives from colleges for College Day. Other theme days involved banner text to reflect the birthday of a notable American person, such as Susan B. Anthony, who drafted the text of the suffrage amendment, or Abraham Lincoln. On one Sunday in February—normally a day off from Silent Sentinel duty—a group of pickets featured wage earning women. They worked Monday through Saturday; their day off —Sunday—was the only available day to picket for the right to vote. 

    “On Sunday, February 18, came Labor Day on the picket line. It was, of course, impossible for wage-earning women to picket the White House on any other day. They represented not only office workers, but factory workers from the great industrial centers. Many of them had come from other cities.”
    — Inez Haynes Gillmore, The Story of the Woman’s Party

    Postcard Series:

    1. Working Women's Picket
    2. We Know We Will Be Arrested Today
    3. Lafayette, We Are Here
    4. Senators, We Are Coming For You

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    Two copies of this photo are at the Library of Congress.

    Torn print in Library of Congress from the National Woman's Party Collection. 
    Section of Working Women's Picket —Feb. 17 18. [18] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress 

    Digital file from original negative, from the Harris & Ewing Collection donated to the Library of Congress. (postcard image is a retouched and colorized version of image file accessed here.)
    Harris & Ewing, photographer. WOMAN SUFFRAGE PICKET PARADE. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress


    Gallagher, Robert S. “‘I was Arrested, Of Course…’ An interview with the famed suffragette, Alice PaulAmerican 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.