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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Mabel Pollitzer, September 19, 1973. Interview G-0047-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Suffragist strategies and Woodrow Wilson's reaction

Pollitzer describes tactics of the women's suffrage movement, especially by way of the National Woman's Party, to campaign for women's suffrage in Washington, D.C., during the 1910s. Pollitzer asserts that picketing was an especially useful and effective strategy, as were the bonfires suffragists held in front of the White House. Pollitzer also describes how Woodrow Wilson shifted from an apathetic stance on women's rights to one of action by the end of the decade. Arguing that Wilson, by that time, had come to see suffrage as politically expedient, Pollitzer also contends that Wilson saw it as morally just to grant women suffrage as well.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Mabel Pollitzer, September 19, 1973. Interview G-0047-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

CONSTANCE MYERS:
So you think that picketing helped the cause and didn't hinder it.
MABEL POLLITZER:
If they hadn't been picketing they might not have gotten it for years. It helped it so greatly! It was only when they picketed, it was when they had these bonfires, it was when they did everything to bring it to the attention of the people. These marvelous women. They would soak, first it was wood, in oil. And the urns in which they lighted the bonfires were so high. And these dear little young women would keep the fires burning as a reminder.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
Where were these binfires?
MABEL POLLITZER:
In Washington, near the White House gates. And that just infuriated the people. One after the other was taken to jail. That's all told in this wonderful book. (The Story of the Woman's Party by Inez Haynes Irwin, published by Harcourt, Brace and Co.) I have several copies; they are Anita's. I'm not lending them to anybody. One of the dear ladies of the NOW said "Could I borrow it?" I could let her "come around to the house and spend days reading it, but I have no right to let it get out of the house." I mean even with the best of intentions.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
I'll come back one day and do this. And take notes.
MABEL POLLITZER:
But you asked me if the picketing helped. It was the most marvelous strategy. I mean, when we win in war anything that is honorable is considered right. Here we wanted to win not for the few women who were picketing, but for the mass of women in America who could not speak their thoughts and who could not work to attain their rights.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
Were there bonfires lit and kept lighted locally?
MABEL POLLITZER:
No. I know of no bonfires except at the Capital. It was to remind the Senators and the Congressmen and to remind the president that state by state suffrage was coming. But it should be that national amendment that had been introduced into Congress. The vote for women, for which they had been fighting for forty-eight years, but intensely fighting since 1913. The National Woman's Party was organized January 2, 1913, and from then on the work was intense, but it became intense, intenser, and most intense around 1917. Then the strategy was to do everything to bring it about before 1920. You see, there was going to be a new election in 1920 between Harding and Cox. The whole aim was to get it speedily. And as I told you last time, at first Woodrow Wilson seemed in a stage almost of apathy toward women's suffrage.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
Not antagonistic, just apathetic?
MABEL POLLITZER:
I would say it was apathetic. Then he became interested in getting it state by state. And he worked to get suffrage in New York State. But the National Woman's Party, who had introduced the national amendment, wanted that amendment passed. Then the thing was to get Woodrow Wilson. He then became really, deeply interested in having the amendment passed. During ratification, when it was brought up before the different states, he himself telegraphed the different governors in states where ratification would be difficult. In other words, later, he felt it was important. Now, the point was, was he feeling that way mostly because of wanting women to vote or was it because he wanted to get the women's vote for the Democratic party? And consequently their strategy was pitting Democrat against Republican. It was Harding that worked so hard - oh so hard it was - to get that ratification in Tennessee. It was Harding then. But it was also Wilson then working on the Democrats of Tennessee, through the state machinery, to get the governor to get the Democrats of the legislature to vote for it. It was a regular seesaw. Now we have more Democrats; now we have more Republicans.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
What do you think he felt in his innermost being on this question? Do you believe he truly wanted the vote for women or was it politically expedient?
MABEL POLLITZER:
I know definitely it was politically expedient. In his heart, being the man he was, I feel, and I love Woodrow Wilson, I really feel that he must have seen that the cause was right and just. In this book one of the writers said it was something like a child ready to go to college. And nagging her father, nagging him, please to get the money so she could go to college. And although it seemed as though she was torturing her father all the time, yet in her heart she dearly loved her father. And that was the way it was described here. They made Woodrow Wilson almost, we might say, ashamed that our country did not have full democracy, when in Russia, in Austria, in Germany and in other parts of Europe they did have women voting. And here Wilson, at the Paris peace talks, urging democracy for all nations, and he did not say "but we do not have it in our own country."