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Zion’s Suffragists podcast: Episode 5 — No sacrifice is too great

The cover art for “Zion’s Suffragists,” a Deseret News podcast that tells the story of how Utah women became the first to vote in the United States.
The cover art for “Zion’s Suffragists,” a Deseret News podcast that tells the story of how Utah women became the first to vote in the United States.
Jeremy Ames, Boncom

(Subscribe to Zion’s Suffragists on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you get podcasts.)

Dianna Douglas: As the world says goodbye to the 1800s, and the 20th century dawns, voting rights for American women aren’t spreading. Suffrage isn’t moving from West to East, as many had hoped. American women need some new ideas.

Rebekah Clark: The National American Woman Suffrage Association, NAWSA, presents a mile-long monster petition in favor of a constitutional amendment to Congress — that’s April of 1910. The Utah Council of Women obtains over 40,000 signatures to contribute to that petition. Years after they’ve gotten their own suffrage. They’re still personally invested.

DD: Have you ever seen a mile-long petition?

RC: I’ve seen pictures.

DD: I’m Dianna Douglas, and this is Zion’s Suffragists, a podcast from the Deseret News about Utah leading the charge for voting rights for women in the United States. Utah women, secure in their own voting rights, wanted it for every woman in America. They wanted it written into the U.S. Constitution, where, I might add, it should have been in the first place.

RC: They evangelized suffrage. They talked about the “gospel of equal rights.” They gave it a spiritual dimension. It’s not surprising in a community like Utah, that was saturated with spirituality.

DD: This is historian Rebekah Clark. The Utah women were ready to help spread this gospel of equal rights. They just needed someone who was interested in their help. May I present a young Quaker from New Jersey named Alice Paul.

RC: She mastered the art of the spectacle. She learned to make the headlines, create large public events, get them widely publicized.

DD: Alice Paul had joined the British suffragist movement while she was studying in England — where women were throwing rocks through buildings and chaining themselves to light posts to get the vote. After being arrested there a few times, Alice Paul and her friend Lucy Burns came back to America — full of fire and not at all interested in plodding along state by state for women’s voting rights with a bunch of proper old ladies in the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

RC: They had both been studying in England and had been heavily influenced by the more radical movement there. And had big vision of what they wanted to do in America. They wanted to shake up the status quo. And they really ruffled feathers.

DD: Unwelcome in the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Alice Paul started her own women’s party, laser focused on getting the Constitutional Amendment.

Why were Utah women open to working with her, someone who had been jailed in England three times? Well, they had a shared goal: amend the Constitution.

RC: They had already experienced firsthand the vulnerability and the weakness of legislatively granted voting rights. Because Congress had revoked their right to vote, after they had already been exercising their right to vote for 17 years.

DD: Giving every woman in America a vote would also make Utah a little less of an outlier.

RC: The suffrage amendment would offer more security to those privileges for everyone.

DD: So, Utah joins forces with Alice Paul. She wanted a show of force for the amendment. She needed a spectacle where everyone was watching. She chose the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson in 1913. The day before Wilson was going to be sworn in, women for suffrage would march in a gorgeous parade, too big to ignore. Here’s historian Rebecca Roberts.

Rebecca Roberts: The 1913 parade was the first civil rights march — it was the first march on Washington. The idea of taking a political movement, and having a march announcing it through the middle of federal Washington was Alice Paul’s idea.

DD: The parade began with a float, pulled by horse, carrying a banner that read, “We demand an amendment to the Constitution of the United States enfranchising the women of the country.” Then, 8,000 women followed it, with floats, nine bands, four mounted brigades, three heralds with trumpets.

RR: It was extraordinarily well planned. There were all female marching bands, and working women marched by profession, the nurses and the teachers, they all had matching costumes. The writers who marched together purposely stained their costumes with ink — there were floats from the states with suffrage. There weren’t many, but they existed — Utah among them.

DD: There was one group of suffragists who planned to march that Alice Paul wasn’t so sure about. A sorority from Howard University was ready to join, on the theory that if white women needed the vote to protect their rights, African American women needed it twice as much. But Paul was unhappy about African American women joining her parade. The Howard University women marched with their heads high, knowing that they might well be targets of jeers from the crowd. Or worse. Ida B. Wells, the legendary suffragist and human rights activist was told to march with them — stay with the other women of color. Wells refused. Mid-march, she slipped in with her Illinois delegation.

Almost immediately after the parade began, things started to go sideways.

RR: When you look at pictures from that day, Pennsylvania Avenue is shoulder to shoulder. You can’t see any pavement between the spectators. Furthermore, all those spectators are wearing bowler hats. They’re men. They weren’t there for the suffrage parade; they were there for the inauguration the next day, and the suffrage parade was kind of a sideshow. They blocked the parade route. The parade couldn’t get through. They were absolutely in the way. They were poorly behaved. They tripped the women, and spit on them and yelled names. The police did nothing to stop them — in some cases the police joined in.

DD: There were 250,000 people on Pennsylvania Avenue that day, drawn by the promise of the biggest and strangest parade that Washington had ever seen.

RR: You can’t get a parade through a crowd that size, no matter how many horses and bands you have.

DD: The women inched their way forward, as men grabbed their clothing, threw lighted cigarettes on them, snatched their banners and tried to climb their floats.

RR: By the time they got to DAR Hall, they were furious. They were cold, they were dirty, they were insulted. These jerky men had ruined their perfect day. But Alice Paul, because she was such a savvy marketer, realized it was the best thing that could have happened. A perfect parade would have been in the news for a day. A near riot would keep suffrage in the news for months. And that’s exactly what happened.

DD: Woman suffrage stays in the paper in 1913. But the papers don’t let women vote. The government does. Here’s historian Rebekah Clark.

Rebekah Clark: To protest the fact that President Woodrow Wilson still has not done anything to get woman’s suffrage passed, they begin holding a very controversial and unprecedented picketing campaign. We are used to seeing picketers out in front of the White House now.

DD: No one had ever protested outside the White House before. But starting in 1917, women began standing out in the cold, as silent sentinels on the sidewalk.

RC: We have two Utah women who we know for sure participated: Lovern Robertson and Minnie Quay.

DD: They were both married. Lovern was in her late 30s and had three sons. Minnie was in her 50s.

President Wilson would sometimes close his eyes as he rode past them in the morning. Sometimes he would tip his hat to them.

RC: They were called “silent sentinels” because they would stand there and they wouldn’t say anything. They’d stand in front of the White House, all day, with large banners that had very compelling messages written on them, like “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” And sometimes be spit on or have things thrown at them. Sometimes be handed food or congratulations from passersby.

DD: And then, the women are faced with an agonizing dilemma. The United States entered World War I. Rather than tell you myself, I’ll let Hilary Swank explain the dilemma — in the movie version of it. This is from the HBO movie “Iron Jawed Angels,” with Hilary Swank as Alice Paul.

Scene from “Iron Jawed Angels”:

“We can’t picket a wartime president.”

“Why the hell not?”

“It’s treason, that’s why.”

“Treason is betraying your country. Petitioning is not treason. At worst it’s just rude.”

“Give it any name you want — the war changes everything.”

RR: Now what do you do? Do you keep criticizing the president in wartime? Some people think that’s treason. You’re going to lose a lot of public support.

DD: Lovern Robertson, Minnie Quay, Alice Paul — all the women decided to go for it. They stood on the sidewalk outside the White House, and kept up the banners. Soon enough, President Wilson got sick of them. The Capitol Police arrested the suffragists. Looking for something to charge them with, they were finally charged with blocking traffic.

RR: It was a bluff. They thought they’d give the women the choice of a fine or a night in jail. They would all say, “Oh my goodness I can’t possibly go to jail. Here’s my $5. I’ll never do it again.” One of many instances of the men in this history underestimating the women in this history. They all said, “Sure, I’ll go to jail. Try me. There are women who will pick up the pickets tomorrow.” The next 12 batch of women is arrested. The judge says “$5 fine or three nights in jail.” They all say, I’ll go to jail. No problem. It escalated so crazily in the summer and fall. You had women sentenced to 60 days in the workhouse at Occoquan for standing on a corner with a sign which is not illegal. The judge kept raising the stakes, and the women kept calling his bluff.

DD: The Occoquan workhouse was a prison in northern Virginia. Locked up in Occoquan, with rats running through their cold cells, Lovern Robertson and Minnie Quay must have felt very far from their Utah home.

RC: They knew things would be bad. Lovern had been very politically active for a while, and so had Minne. Lovern says right before she leaves, “I do not expect to escape arrest.” She knew going in, that that was the risk. And she was willing to take the risk.

DD: Minne and Lovern and many other women were horribly mistreated in the prison.

RC: They were among the 33 protesters who were arrested and subjected to what has been termed the “night of terror.” They were imprisoned on Nov. 15, in 1917. That night, while they were in the prison, the warden ordered the guards to mistreat the women. To teach them a lesson. There were beatings. Women were hospitalized. Several of the women went on hunger strikes, and there were force feedings that caused damage to them.

DD: In affidavits and letters, the women in prison told of their abuse. It started to be reported in the newspapers.

RC: The mistreatment actually helped turn public sympathy in their favor. And within just a few weeks, President Woodrow Wilson shifted his opinion around and came out publicly in favor of a federal suffrage amendment. Which was a striking change of events.

DD: “We have made partners of the women in this war,” he said. “Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” A Constitutional amendment started to look much more likely, with the president on board. Or at least possible.

RC: The protests continued, until they actually received that Congressional approval.

DD: The suffragists were released from prison, and Minnie Quay and Lovern Robertson went back to Utah to be with their families.

Utah was conflicted about these protests — the Woman’s Democratic Club revoked Minnie’s membership. And the Utah Council of Women denounced her for using such extreme tactics.

But the National Women’s Party asked Minnie to come back to Washington to demonstrate again. “I am ready to do anything within my power,” Minnie said. “No sacrifice is too great.”

RC: That is stunning. Particularly after having undergone something so traumatic. And knowing what she’d experience if she went back.

DD: The U.S. Congress wrote an amendment to the Constitution, and passed it in 1919. But that wasn’t the end. Then the states had to vote yes or no. If two thirds of the states voted yes, the amendment would be ratified. Utah was ready for this day. A state senator named Elizabeth Hayward wanted this vote — to ratify the 19th Amendment — to be a celebration of all the work that had brought Utah to this point.

RC: She secures a special session of the Utah legislature, they meet solely to consider ratifying the amendment. She introduces it, and it passes in 30 minutes.

DD: The next day the bill goes to the Utah House of Representatives.

RC: The women who are currently serving in the House as representatives all play a part. So you have Anna T. Piercey, who chairs the House of Representatives during passage. You have representatives Delora Blakely and Dr. Grace Stratton Airey gave speeches. You see a very intentional attempt to highlight the women, and honor them. The whole legislature is recognizing that this is an important moment in time. And I like that. I like imagining them being invited to chair the session.

DD: Every single person in the Utah state legislature voted yes to ratify the 19th Amendment — every man and woman.

By 1920, almost enough states had voted yes. Almost all of the southern states had voted no. The best shot at getting the amendment passed was in the southern state of Tennessee.

RC: Everything was teed up, but it was really close. It was tied for the first two votes. A dead even split.

Then, one state representative, Harry T. Burn, who had previously been against the amendment and had been wearing the red rose that signified that he was against the amendment.

DD: A yellow flower was a symbol of the suffrage movement for a long time. Those in favor would wear a yellow rose on their lapels. Harry Burn was wearing a red rose.

RC: Then, he receives a letter from his mom, Febb Burn. It’s this long, beautiful, hilarious letter. She tells him to, “Be a good boy,” and says, “Hurrah and vote for suffrage.”

So he switches his vote. He changes his mind and casts the deciding vote in favor of suffrage all because of that letter. And later he explains, “A mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow.”

DD: I should say.

RC: We owe it all to Ms. Febb Burn.

DD: She’s like the 100,000th woman.

RC: Right. Exactly.

DD: Utah celebrated the 19th Amendment with a parade and program on the steps of the Utah State Capitol. The 19th Amendment was a landmark achievement. It was not the end — more of a big step in a very long march toward making the country a true democracy. The next step for Utah would require an opera. That story in the next episode.

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