Updated: Oct 17, 2020
As a leader in the Congressional Union for Woman’s Suffrage and later, the National Woman’s Party, Ella became known as an iron-jawed angel for her silent protests against President Wilson’s inertia on women’s suffrage.
To rally voter support for the amendment, leaders of the Congressional Union organized the “Suffrage Special,” a train that would travel from Washington, DC to the West Coast, where women had the right to vote in six western states. The train held twenty-three suffrage organizers, including Ella Riegel, the campaign’s business manager. Ella was responsible for the logistics of the five-week tour. A secondary purpose of the Suffrage Special was to drum up attendance at the Congressional Union’s convention, scheduled for June 1916, when the leaders planned to announce the establishment of the National Woman’s Party.
Ella had an office onboard the train. While traveling across the country, the train made whistle-stops to gather signatures for a new petition that the women planned to present to Congress. Ella wrote, “If you Washington ladies could peep into the Suffrage Special when nine typewriters are pounding away, and Press reports and resolutions are being written, and literature being folded and counted, and membership cards listed, and the Business Manager receiving money, you would realize that this is no place for the graceful letter writer!” When they reached California, Ella noted, “My charges are busy and happy—not too much coddled—and so far no broken heads!” After they returned to the East Coast, the organizers led an automobile parade from the District of Columbia railroad station to the Capitol, where they presented the petition to Congress.
In 1917, Ella Riegel and other members of the National Woman’s Party began to picket President Wilson in front of the White House. As a member of Bryn Mawr’s first graduating class, Ella had studied political economy under Woodrow Wilson. Ella told a newspaper reporter that, by picketing, she was carrying out the principles she learned when she studied political economy at Bryn Mawr with Woodrow Wilson. “President Wilson instructed us that legislation depends upon the party in power, so I know he will be glad to see me on picket duty to prod Democrats to favorable action on the suffrage amendment.”
At first, newspapers covered the picketing objectively, but when reporters realized that the women planned to picket every day until Congress passed the suffrage amendment, their reports became scathing. Critics called the protesters silly, unsexed, crazy, shameless, and pathological.
The president was embarrassed when picketers held signs at the front of the White House saying “President Wilson is deceiving Russia when he says ‘We are a democracy.’” Doris Stevens, a lead organizer for the National Woman’s Party, recalled, “Of course it was embarrassing. We meant it to be. This was no time for manners.” White House staffers met to decide how to react to this insult. They ordered the chief of police to order the women to stop picketing.
“Of course the picketing was embarrassing. We meant it to be. This was no time for manners.”
Alice Paul, the National Woman’s Party’s leader, responded, “We have picketed for six months without interference. Has the law been changed?”
“No, but you must stop it.”
“But we have consulted our lawyers and know we have a legal right to picket.”
“I warn you: you will be arrested if you attempt to picket again.”
The next day, two picketers showed up, and police arrested them before a large crowd.
At the police station, the women asked what crime they had committed, but the officers who booked them were confused because picketing was not a crime. They consulted with their superiors. Doris Stevens recalled, “Doors opened and closed mysteriously. Whispered conversations were heard. The book on rules and regulations was hopefully thumbed. Hours passed.” Finally, the police charged the women with obstructing traffic. They released the protesters and dropped the charges.
Police would eventually arrest dozens of women for picketing. During the trial, defendant Anne Martin explained the defense’s position. “We were petitioning the President of the United States, for a redress of grievances; we are asking him to use his great power to secure passage of the national suffrage amendment. As long as the government prefers to send women to jail on petty and technical charges, we will go to jail. We believe, your Honor, that the wrong persons are before the bar in this court.”
The district attorney interrupted her: “I object, your Honor, to this woman making such a statement.”
Defendant Florence Bayard Hilles rose to speak.
“This court has not proven that I obstructed traffic. During the months of January, February, March, April, and May, picketing was legal. In June, it suddenly became illegal.”
After two days of testimony, the trial concluded.
The judge rendered his decision: sixty days in a work prison or a $25 fine.
The women chose prison.
Three days later, the president pardoned the picketers. As the suffragists were leaving, the prison warden warned, “The next lot of women who come here won’t be treated with the same consideration.”
Picketing resumed, but the police did not arrest the picketers. Stevens recalled, “Our fight was becoming increasingly difficult—I might almost say desperate. Here we were, a band of women fighting with banners, in the midst of a world armed to the teeth.” The protests continued.
In February 1919, the National Woman’s Party decided to ramp up protests by burning effigies of the president in a cauldron at the picket site. On the night before the US Senate met to vote again on the federal amendment—now only lacking one vote—Ella and Louisine Havemeyer, a member of the National Woman’s Party, led seventy-three picketers from suffragist headquarters to the White House gates. At the front of the procession, Louisine carried the American flag, and Ella held the organization’s purple and gold flag. Ella watched Louisine as they approached the White House. Ella watched as the last group of the picketers arrived, carrying a large clay urn, kerosene-soaked logs, and a two-foot paper effigy of Wilson. A protester lit the fire and placed the effigy into the urn where it burst into flames. The crowd of one thousand roared. Police immediately extinguished the fire.
Alice Paul handed Louisine paper parcels and matches to relight the fire. Louisine was frightened. She feared that she would receive a life sentence for such irreverence. She picked up a match and halfheartedly tried to rekindle the fire, but the match kept burning out. She began her speech: “No other people in the world have suffered as American women—”
A police officer grabbed Louisine by the arm, and she stumbled. He led her to a police wagon. Before she ducked to enter the carriage, she turned: “Every Anglo-Saxon government in the world has enfranchised its women. Even Germany has woman suffrage.”
She continued, “We, American women, are taking this way of voicing our deep indignation that, while our government preaches democracy for Europe, we are still deprived of a voice in our government.”
The police officer firmly pushed her into the wagon.
Another woman continued the speech.
The police arrested her as well.
When it was her turn, Ella proudly carried on the speech.
Police arrested her.
Thirty-nine women were arrested that day. The women refused bail and spent the night in a jail that, ten years earlier, had been abandoned “as unfit to hold a human being.” The next day, as the Senate sat down in legislative chambers to vote on the amendment, the protesters were being tried. When the Senate clerk tallied the ballots, the suffrage bill still lacked one vote.
Released from prison, Ella, Louisine, and twenty-two other women went on a “Prison Special” train tour to tell the stories about their incarceration for picketing. Editorials disparaged the women, describing them as “short-haired unreasonable and fanatical women” who have tried to become martyrs by violating municipal laws. The former convicts donned prison garb. From a platform onboard the train, they spoke of the prison’s horrors and their fight for equality. They explained how guards had handcuffed a suffragist to the bed and threatened prisoners with straitjackets and gags. During a hunger strike, an officer force-fed a woman who was being held down by five guards. An eighty-year-old protester was knocked unconscious by guards.
The spectacle of the Prison Special pressured the president into amending the suffrage bill to meet the concerns of one senator who had voted against it. Within a month, the amendment passed. It took over a year for three-quarters of the states to ratify the amendment. In June 1920, Ella, Doris, and Louisine picketed the Republican National Convention in Chicago to pressure Republicans in unratified states to endorse the amendment. Two more states ratified the constitutional amendment, and on August 26, 1920, President Wilson signed the Nineteenth Amendment into law. Eight million women voted in November 1920. By 1928, seven women served in the US House of Representatives.
Thanks to Ella and thousands of others, women now have the right to vote in the United States.
Other Posts in this Series