The sixteen suffragist pickets came from nine states and ranged in age from twenty-two to sixty-two. Among them were teachers, munitions workers, businesswomen, and socially prominent women. Some were married or widows, with and without children, others single. Their "attack" consisted of three groups of pickets marching single file, one after another, to the East and West Gates of the White House. There they stood in silence, holding a dazzling array of banners one of which was inscribed LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY, the motto associated with the French Revolution. The crowd attracted by the sight of the police and their patrol wagon was subdued. Doris Stevens, who was in the third group, noted that "an intense silence fell on the spectators, as they saw . . . white-headed grandmothers hoisted into the crowded police vehicle, their heads erect and their frail hands holding tightly to the banner until it was wrested from them by a policeman.
Their trial before Judge Mullowney lasted two tense days. "I submit that these arrests are purely political," Matilda Hall Gardner told Mullowney. Anne Martin declared that if the government "prefer to send women to jail . . . we will go to jail. Our work for the passage of the amendment must go on. It will go on." After conferring with President Woodrow Wilson's chief of staff, Mullowney pronounced a draconian sentence: "Sixty days in the workhouse (Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia) in default of a twenty-five dollar fine." Shocked and shaken but resolute the women replied, "We protest against this unjust sentence and conviction but we prefer the workhouse to the payment of a fine imposed for an offense of which we are not guilty."
It was dark when the suffrage pickets arrived after traveling by airless police wagon, a train, and a rocky ride in a locked van along with "drunks, disorderlies, prostitutes and thieves." Relieved of their personal belongings, including eyeglasses and rings, they were forced to strip naked, shower, and change into shapeless, coarse-feeling prison clothes. Although Virginia had rigid segregation laws, they were "put with colored women as an insult," said Eunice Brannan, "but the colored women were kind to them and indignant at their treatment." As Doris Stevens went to sleep, her "thoughts turned to the outside world." Would there be a public protest?
Newspapers across the country covered the story. Some of Wilson's key supporter pressured him to do something. Finally on the third day, Wilson issued a pardon. After her release Alison Turnbull Hopkins stood in front of the White House with a banner that read: WE DO NOT ASK PARDON FOR OURSELVES BUT JUSTICE FOR ALL AMERICAN WOMEN.
(Note: Suffragist was the term American women used. The use of "suffragettes" in the banner headline (image: The Washington Times, July 14, 1917, p. 1.), was undoubtedly intended to associate the pickets with the militant British women who had adopted the moniker, first introduced to trivialize them.)
Adapted from The Vote: Women's Fierce Fight by Penny Colman