Alice Paul vs. Woodrow Wilson: A Thanksgiving Story


Matilda Joslyn Gage worked many decades through the 1800s to gain suffrage for women; Alice Paul and her fellow suffragists finally accomplished the deed in the early years of the 1900s.  President Woodrow Wilson needed plenty of persuasion, however, before the 19th Amendment became a reality. It granted American women the right to vote, a right known as women’s suffrage, and was ratified on August 18, 1920, ending almost a century of protest.


I am currently reading Jon Meacham’s new book, The Soul of America:  The Battle for Our Better Angels. He begins chapter four with a “A NEW AND GOOD THING IN THE WORLD.”  His reference is to “The Triumph of Women’s Suffrage.”  He opens with this quote from Susan B. Anthony, said while arguing for the equality of women before the law in 1873:  “It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union.”

In this blog, I intend to convey this important landmark in history in mostly Meacham’s own words.  He begins by mentioning that “Like many American men, [Wilson] had hardly been an enthusiastic supporter of the decades-long struggle for a constitutional amendment on women’s suffrage, but, in the middle of a world war, Wilson had changed his mind and was now, in the early autumn of 1918, ready to take the case to the Senate.  After generations of activism—of appeals in the press, of marches and rallies, of vigils and hunger strikes—supporters of extending voting rights to women had at last convinced the most powerful man in the nation to stand up for them.

Meacham describes this momentous setting: “On Monday, September 30, 1918, Wilson went to Capitol Hill to deliver the speech he had composed on his typewriter.  His mission:  to urge lawmakers to approve the proposed Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution granting women the vote.  The war against the European imperial powers, Wilson told the Senate, was also a war for a more inclusive and enlightened era.  The people of the world…were ‘looking to the great, powerful, famous Democracy of the West to lead them to the new day for which they have so long waited; and they think…that democracy means that women shall play their part in affairs alongside men and upon an equal footing with them.’ Women had answered the call to service in war; they would soon be essential to the peace.  ‘Without their counsellings,’ Wilson said, ‘we shall be only half wise.”

Five years earlier, when Wilson arrived for his first inauguration, the president-elect “wondered why there were so few well-wishers at Union Station or on the streets.”

Wilson asked, “Where are the people?”

“Oh,” he was told, ‘they are out watching the suffrage parade.”

Meacham then described the scene: “The demonstration that day was enormous—and chaotic.  Angry men taunted the marchers and tried to break their ranks.  The suffragists, the Baltimore American reported, ‘practically fought their way foot by foot up Pennsylvania Avenue, through a surging throng that completely defied Washington police.’ Only the arrival of cavalry troops from Fort Myer, the army base across the Potomac, brought a semblance of order to the day.”

No fan of women’s rights at this point, Wilson met with Alice Paul in the East Room later that month.  Paul was a leading advocate for suffrage.  She and seven of her colleagues tried to reason with Wilson but he “refused to take up their cause.  The fact that the fight for the right to vote had been waged for seven decades—since, really, the founding convention of the movement at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1948—did not impress the president. “I do not care to enter into a discussion of that,” Wilson told his visitors, ending the conversation.”

Though this was not an auspicious beginning, Alice Paul “soon headquartered herself on Lafayette Square and launched a persistent campaign of protest at Wilson’s doorstep.  Born in 1885 to a distinguished Quaker family in New Jersey, Paul had been influenced by the more militant British suffrage movement during a stay in England from 1907 to 1910.”

Perhaps, many of my readers here saw the movie “Suffragette” a few years ago.  It portrayed the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union “women moved from speechmaking to active street protest, including face-to-face challenges to lawmakers.  If arrested, the suffragists…would refuse food in jail, leading to highly publicized force-feedings.  The gruesome details of prison officials jamming tubes carrying milk and much through the protestors’ nostrils to prevent starvation lent moral urgency to the suffragist cause.  ‘The essence of the campaign of the suffragettes,’ Paul told American audiences on her return, ‘is opposition to the government’—and a government that imprisoned and mistreated women for seeking the justice of the franchise was clearly worth opposing.”  She kept the pressure on.  Demonstrators known as “silent sentinels” stood outside the White House every day.  When arrested for interfering with traffic, “they, like their British counterparts, would refuse food in jail, leading to the dreaded force-feedings. During the 1916 State of the Union, suffragists displayed a banner that read MR. WILSON, WHAT ARE YOU DOING FOR WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE?  They had employed passive resistance combined with civil disobedience in a direct confrontation with the authority of the president.

They prevailed “when Wilson agreed to endorse the proposed amendment…” When it was ratified, worked many decades through the 1800s to gain suffrage for women; Alice Paul and her fellow suffragists finally accomplished the deed in the early years of the 1900’s.  President Woodrow Wilson needed plenty of persuasion, however, before the 19th Amendment became a reality. It granted American women the right to vote, a right known as women’s suffrage, and was ratified on August 18, 1920, ending almost a century of protest.Wilson wrote, “Will you take the opportunity to say to my fellow citizens that I deem it one of the greatest honors of my life that this great event, the ratification of this amendment, should have occurred during the period of my administration” to suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt in the summer of 1920. “Nothing has given me more pleasure than the privilege that has been mine to do what I could to advance the cause of ratification and to hasten the day when the womanhood of America would be recognized by the nation on the equal footing of citizenship that it deserves.”

Catt then wrote a letter to her staff on Thanksgiving Day 1920, a few weeks after women in all forty-eight states had the right to cast ballots for president for the first time. “As I look back, over the years,” she wrote, “I realize that the greatest thing in the long campaign for us was not its crowning victory, but the discipline it gave us all…It was a great crusade, the world has seen none more wonderful…My admiration, love, and reverence go out to that band which fought and won a revolution…with congratulations that we were permitted to establish a new and good thing in the world.”

“Though he was slow to join the side of the angels, Wilson got suffrage right.  The ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment was a landmark in American life,” according to Jon Meacham (and, I suspect, for most of womankind!)  “Women resisted the suffocating opinion of generations to create new opinion and new law, and a new nation.”

Let’s add this landmark for women to our list of things for which to be thankful this Thanksgiving Day!

2 Replies to “Alice Paul vs. Woodrow Wilson: A Thanksgiving Story”

  1. I was only tangentially aware of this important story. Do you know if it is true that Women’s Suffrage only passed by a single vote; and that the senator casting that vote said his mother told him to vote that way? This was a story my mother told me but I don’t know if there is any truth to it.

    It is always hard to wrap my head around the fact that my own grandmother’s generation (I’m 72) was the first to be able to vote. Women’s suffrage is something I take for granted when I should not.

    I plan to add Jon Meacham’s book to my reading list!

    1. Yes, the story about the senator changing his vote because of his mother is true. I have over my years of teaching tried to impress upon my students the history of movements that affect their lives today but take for granted. To my black students, I emphasize what their forebears went through to gain the civil rights they now have. To my female students, I similarly try to share the history (as you realize, NOT that long ago) when women could not vote and could not do so many other things that women are allowed to do these days. I hope you do find the time to read Meachem’s book(s). I found it very compelling reading. I was introduced to it in a class taught by Dave Pasinski at OASIS. He introduced us to many good books in that particular class. Catch his article in the commentary section of this past Sunday’s Post Standard.
      I didn’t know we are so close in age. But it makes sense. I just turned 73 in February. I consider you a best friend.

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