Friday, May 23, 2008

Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party: Direct Action in Time of War

Thanks to IntLawGrrls for giving me the opportunity, by means of this guest post, to call attention to the work of Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party.

The story of the National Woman's Party and its 1917 picketing campaign on behalf of woman suffrage is almost unknown in legal circles. Yet the suffrage pickets were among the earliest victims of the suppression of dissent that accompanied the entry of the United States into World War I. Nearly forty years before the modern civil rights movement brought the concept of nonviolent civil disobedience to the forefront of American political discourse, the NWP conducted a direct action campaign at the very doorstep of the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. And they did so during a time of war.
In the course of this campaign, Paul and her supporters learned to use the apparatus of the municipal courts and the prison system to focus attention on the powerlessness of women, while at the same time elevating their very real suffering to a kind of suffrage martyrdom. Their principal goal was to keep pressure on government officials so that the cause of woman suffrage would not be swept away in the wartime hysteria that gripped the nation in 1917. As the police regularly hauled them off to jail, however, the suffragists began to realize that their ability to pursue that goal hinged largely on the recognition of a constitutional right to free speech.
The working paper I've just posted at SSRN, "We are at War and You Should Not Bother the President": The Suffrage Pickets and Freedom of Speech During World War I, represents the first step in recovering this forgotten story. (This is only a small portion of a much larger work-in -progress on the militant suffrage campaign). In this paper, I present, for the first time, a detailed narrative account of the legal battles of the suffrage pickets of 1917, beginning with the first round of arrests in late June, and concluding with their victory in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in March 1918. Although the women themselves did not directly shape legal doctrine, the saga of the suffrage pickets provides an excellent vehicle for examining the emergence of free speech consciousness during 1917.
Bringing the story of the suffrage pickets to the attention of legal scholars may cause a significant reevaluation of the traditional narrative of First Amendment history. (photo credit for 1917 NWP suffrage picket of White House)


Marjorie Florestal said...

Welcome Catherine! And thank you for this incredible post. I had no idea of this important movement. I don't know why, but I'm often amazed at how easily we manage to bury the history of women and other "minority" groups. There is an old African proverb that says: "Until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter." Thank you for being a historian for the lions!

Marjorie Florestal said...


Kiné asked me to submit this comment on her behalf, so here it is:

Thank you Catherine for this very inspirational post. Paul and Burn are great role models. As a grass roots feminist activist I welcome all reminders of how a battle for legal reform is won, and of how much hardship and determination goes into it. Activists are warriors and like all warriors we need to learn from the strategies used in successfully fought campains. Reading about the work of Alice Paul I would say it's all about relentlessly keeping the pressure on.