Arrests and Imprisonment
Woman in the Unied States had been fighting for the right to vote in some form since the American Revolution. They lobbied government officials, published suffrage newspapers, marched in parades. A more militant strain of activism started as some American activists, including Alice Paul, worked in the often violent fight for women's rights in England in the early 1900's. Led by Paul, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage and the National Woman's Party separated from the more traditional National American Women's Suffrage Association. Increasingly frustrated by Congress blocking a vote on suffrage, and believing that President Wilson had the power to intervene, in January 1917 The NWA began a campaign of protests at the White House. Their protests were peaceful but controversial, especially after the United States entered World War I in April 1917.
In an article in Good Housekeeping, one protester, Anna Wiley, wrote about why they protested and were willing to go to prison. "We determined not to be put aside like children, and told to wait for weightier measures, becuase we considered it imperative that women be enfranchised at this time...This was the burning zeal that prompted us to do this unpopular thing. This was the 'soul urge' that made us willing to endure martyrdom for our cause." The editors of Good Housekeeping noted that they were opposed to the picketing, although they were for women's suffrage.
Read Ann Wiley's Good Housekeeping article (requires Trinity credentials) or cccess a copy (stored in three separate files as required by the publisher).
Some in the suffrage movement did not approve of the picketing and saw it as counterproductive, especially in wartime. The more conservative NAWSA, under the leadership of Carrie Chaman Catt, was opposed to the protest efforts, and Catt thought it made the women look "ridiculous." Paul and Catt continued their struggles until suffrage was passed, and the conflict was played out in suffrage efforts throughout the country. This article points to one such conflict in the New York Women's Party, condemning Mrs. Havemeyer (a Paul follower) who objected to the organization supporting and promoting war bonds in a country not allowing women the vote. "We are against the pickets, we are against such seditious advice as Mrs. Havemeyer's, and we believe that to support the Government to the last ditch is the best way of proving our fitness for the vote."
This was the contentious and even dangerous environment that women picketers faced. Their efforts exposed them to ridicule, even within their own movement, and sometimes violent physical attacks from those outside the movement. As their protests grew more insistent, arrest and imprisonment followed. One protest of Wilson in New York City, and the ensuing confrontation, was reported in the New York Times March 5, 1919. The Times described the women as "militants" who attacked the police with their banners and struck bystanders as well. They "knocked off patrolmen's hats slapped their faces, and stuck them with the remains of their banners." It also describes 36 suffragette marchers being followed by 300 jeering soldiers and sailors. Elsie Hill, identified as a leader of the march, burned a copy of a speech by Wilson. She and 5 other leaders were arrested.
Elsie Hill, a well-off child of US Congerssman E.J. Hill was one of several Connecticut women, including her sister Helena [Hill] Weed, to be imprisoned for their actions advocating for women's suffrage. Their treatment was often cruel, including physical exposure and humiliations, unclean food and water, and forced feedings. Read more of their stories: Helena Hill Weed, Minnie Hennessey, Catherine Flanagan.