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.
Like Lucy, women of 1917 were abandoning the aggressively feminine style of the Gibson girl for a more practical form of dress. This could be attributed to the cultural advances of the women’s movement and women’s emancipation, but there were many other factors affecting women’s dress at the time.
During World War I, fabrics were rationed. Straight skirts that reached the ankles replaced the sweeping skirts of the early 20th century to conserve fabric. In previous years, women’s hats had reached huge proportions to balance their large skirts, now smaller styles, such as the toque were in fashion. The fur felt hat I designed for Lucy is based off of the smaller hats with upturned asymmetrical brims of the period, sometimes referred to as “flower pot hats.”
Government also played a role in fashionable hat trims of the time. In 1896, two Massachusetts sisters founded one of the first Audubon societies in reaction to the overhunting of birds for the sake of the millinery industry. Feathers, wings, and even whole stuffed birds were popular hat accents and the demand for them had led some species to be hunted to near extinction. The activism of these environmental societies led to the passage of The Lacey Act in 1900. This act banned the sale of certain feathers.
However, ostrich feathers were not affected by this ban. Ostrich feathers can be collected from the bird without killing or harming the animal. Farms in Texas, Arizona, California, and Arkansas, and Florida supplied the millinery industry with inexpensive, easily dyed, cruelty free feathers. Feathers from domestic birds, such as roosters, ducks, and turkeys were also unaffected by the Lacey Act.
Photographs of Lucy demonstrating in the 1910’s depict her clothing as well tailored. She preferred suits to dresses, and darker colors to light. Lucy’s clothes were well made with clean lines. No wonder New York newspapers rumored that she intended to run for Congress. The wool and serge fabrics she favored were more akin to a politician’s suit instead of a debutante’s gown. For this reason, Lucy’s hat for her November 10th picket, is a simple navy wook hat with strong design lines. Lucy’s hat is trimmed with a tuft of navy blue ostrich plumes and a small fan of mallard feathers.