By: Laura Spears
“We shall fight for the things which 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 governments.” So read the banner carried by Lucy Burns in June, 1917. However, the words on her banner were not her own. Lucy’s banner contained a direct quote from President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war on Germany. She and other “silent sentinels” that stood outside the White House gates often repeated President Wilson’s words on democracy back to him to plead the case of the 20,000,000 American women who were not self-governed.
Although the National Women’s Party had begun their banner campaign in January of 1917, the Sentinels outside of the White House with their signs were largely ignored until the United States entered World War I. After this, their messages directed toward a war-time President were seen as unpatriotic. The banners began to draw crowds. Sometimes these crowds grew angry and hurled insults and other objects. Policemen allowed onlookers to destroy the women’s banners and then arrested the women for the only legal charge that they could come up with: blocking traffic.
This was not the first time Lucy had been arrested for demonstrating. She and Alice Paul had met years before at a police station in England while incarcerated for demonstrating with English suffragists. Alice noticed that Lucy was wearing an American flag pin on her lapel and introduced herself. Upon their return to United States, both women began working with the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. In 1913, Lucy and Alice founded their own organization, National Women’s Party. The sole objective of the NWP was “to secure an amendment to the United States Constitution enfranchising women.”
Lucy and 30 other picketers were arrested and sentenced to jail time for the November 10th picket. Members of the NWP had been arrested on numerous occasions since June of 1917, but this incarceration would see the most brutal treatment of the women. They would be denied legal counsel, sanitary food, and sleeping conditions. As punishment for calling out to another inmate who was being abused by prison guards, Lucy’s hands were chained above her head to her cell door for an entire night. In protest of the poor living conditions, Lucy and other inmates began a hunger strike. Prison doctors physically restrained her and force-fed her through a tube inserted into her nostril many times during her imprisonment.
Lucy’s White House banner campaign gained national attention. There was a public outcry against the treatment of the imprisoned members of the NWP, and a federal amendment for women’s suffrage gained more support. The NWP used this national support and the congressional election of 1918 to replace congressmen who did not support suffrage with those who did. Soon, suffrage was the law of the land. Read the rest of this entry »