Woodrow Wilson Versus the Suffragettes

Don’t forget that Wilson opposed letting women vote.

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U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and his wife, first lady Edith Bolling Wilson, smile in this undated photo.
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and his wife, first lady Edith Bolling Wilson, smile in this undated photo.

You hear a lot about President Woodrow Wilson lately, but not about Alice Paul, the striking suffragette who took to the streets against him for years. She was a thoroughly modern 20th century young woman and a birthright Quaker. Wilson was born in the heart of Virginia five years before the Civil War began, a son of the South from a family of Presbyterian ministers. Need I say more? He was no match for her.

Woodrow Wilson is on the tip of Washington's tongue this holiday season because it's the centennial of his eight-year presidency. It began with his swearing-in on March 4, 1913. He was one of the last presidents to write his own speeches, and they were lofty. Like President Obama, many of his stands were progressive, but his record on civil liberties is troubling. In the end, he was a somewhat tragic visionary of world peace, but he is now being revisited and embraced with warm tributes and feelings. Woodrow, we hardly knew you under the proud Princeton professorial front. Woody Guthrie, the great folksinger, was actually named after him, so there's a dash of the common man in Wilson's legacy.

The White House Christmas tree and ornament honor his memory. A new biography is out, by A. Scott Berg, who told me he spent 13 years writing it. Maureen Dowd quoted Berg at length in a Sunday Op-ed column in The New York Times. An old Hollywood movie about Wilson was screened in part Thursday at the Motion Picture Association of America, hosted by former Sen. Christopher Dodd, the group’s chairman. Dodd, as cordial as ever, looked content in his new element as he asked Berg to share some thoughts after the screening.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Well, Hollywood loves backstories and so do I.

When it came to Woodrow and women, this is what you hear, more or less: that he was devoted to his two wives, Ellen and Edith, and three daughters. Wilson was widowed for less than a year in the White House when he married a rich glamorous widow, the first woman to get a driver's license in the District of Columbia. Later she had to do some governance of her own when he fell ill. "Uxorious" was too weak a word for the president's rapturous, voracious love for Edith. Wilson's ardent letters proved "too much" even for his doting biographer.

But guess what. None of that private stuff means a fig to me. I care about presidents' public actions, how they actually treated women as citizens – or not.

I'm here to clear up any confusion left by Berg and John Milton Cooper, Jr., another author of a tome on Wilson. From the moment he set foot in Washington's Union Station and found he was upstaged by Paul's strategically timed suffrage parade on March 3, Wilson was a foe, not a friend, of the "Votes for Women" mass movement led by Paul. Its base camp was in a beautiful brick home nestled near the Capitol, where feelings ran strong that this fundamental right was long overdue. Women could not vote; ergo, they were not citizens in a democracy. Let me give you the backstory they never do. Did I note Berg and Cooper are Princeton Tigers?

[See a collection of political cartoons on women in combat.]

Where Susan B. Anthony had fallen short after a lifetime, Paul would cross the finish line to victory. This is the crucial turning point in momentum: Paul was the first political leader in American history to turn all pressure and focus on one man, namely the president of the United States. It was a contest of wills, with no pretense of amity. Paul stormed the nation's capital in a series of marches, protests or vigils in plain view of the president – almost every single day. Wilson occasionally invited the women chained to the White House gates inside the White House for a chat over tea that invariably turned into a lecture. Wilson didn't really like outspoken women who talked back, and disliked teaching at Bryn Mawr College before he joined the faculty of his alma mater Princeton, of which he became president. The perspicacious Paul, who studied at Swarthmore College (as did I) and the London School of Economics, was not prepared to play student to his professor. The president and the suffragette were just not each other's cup of tea.

Right here in Washington, Paul created the most vivid political theater ever seen, teaching outdoor street techniques and tactics she learned in London, where she joined the suffragette movement led by the females in the Pankhurst family. Paul shunned the plodding campaign of petition signatures that Anthony had waged, state by state. Hers was an exhilarating movement centered on the federal government and its head; women came in droves from Philadelphia and other cities to be part of it. And then it got ugly: women were arrested for civil disobedience. Wives, sisters and daughters were detained under horrid conditions in Virginia. Outrage spread when word got out that Paul and other leaders were force-fed, a human rights abuse.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Is Voter Fraud a Real Problem?]

President Wilson didn't do a thing then, as popular sympathy and support for women's suffrage mounted. The signs women held up became more personal and pointed: the president who wished to make the world safe for democracy stood in the way of democracy at home. According to Berg, Wilson supported the state-by-state approach, which would be in keeping with his cultural Southern character. But it's plain as day that Wilson relented and came very late to the suffrage game. The 19th Amendment finally passed in 1920 not because of him, but because of Paul. The world war mobilization gave Wilson a graceful – grudging? – reason why women should be rewarded with the vote.

In point of fact, Paul and her spirited army of women took the vote very much by the hand. It was not magnanimously given by Wilson. From 1920 on, Paul's organized nonviolent resistance, in keeping with her Quaker passion for social justice, became a blueprint for other American social change movements.

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