Suffragists picketing in front of the White House in 1917.

An Alabama man recently attacked a provocative effigy of the president displayed by demonstrators embracing the First Amendment (“‘We have good versus evil’,” Nov. 13). The agitated assailant sliced open the “Baby Trump” balloon, later declaring he had to take a stand. Presumably, he was demanding respect for his personal political opinions without having to extend the same to others for theirs.

Emotions run deep in politics these days, but not so much mutual respect. And maybe it was similar a century ago when American women were demanding the right to vote. Women’s suffrage demonstrators in Washington, D.C., were thought disrespectful of that president, too. Those demonstrators were harassed and disrespected in return themselves, but then by authorities and those with power.

On Feb. 9, 1919, women were picketing the White House, disappointed by President Woodrow Wilson’s failure to urge Congress to pass a resolution supporting the Susan B. Anthony Constitutional Amendment for ratification by three-quarters of the 48 states. The Senate vote was expected to be decided by a single vote. The 75 picketers of the National Woman’s Party that February afternoon paraded to the White House wearing their purple, gold and white sashes, displaying banners and carrying the American flag. Planning to take their protest to a new level, they carried with them an urn of hot coals. Having previously burned Wilson’s speeches, that evening they would burn an effigy of the president himself.

The 2-foot-tall representation of President Wilson “looked like a doll stuffed with straw,” the New York Times wrote. Miss Sue White of Nashville, Tenn., dropped the effigy into the flames declaring, “We burn not the effigy of the President of a free people, but the leader of an autocratic party organization whose tyrannical power holds millions of women in political slavery.” The Times continued, “There was a good deal of a mix up at the time, as the district police, the military police, and the Boy Scouts, who assisted in the round-up of the women, were getting busy.”

Forty or more women were arrested and carried away in patrol wagons. Several courageously refused to post bail and were sent to the House of Detention. Only 16 months before, 33 arrested suffragists — “Silent Sentinels” — suffered beatings, torture, humiliation, rat-infested jail cells and maggot-filled food at the hands of guards at the Occoquan Workhouse during the “Night of Terror,” Nov. 14, 1917. Despite their demands to be treated as political prisoners, the superintendent had told his guards to teach those women a lesson. Prominent leader Lucy Burns was handcuffed to a high rail, forcing her to stand all night. Leader Alice Paul endured force-feeding with a tube shoved into her throat after going on a hunger strike.

The Feb. 10 vote was indeed defeated by a single senator, but the persevering suffragists prevailed at last on June 4, 1919, when the U.S. Senate passed the resolution with the required two-thirds affirmative. The long process of ratification by the states then began.

Notably, North Carolina’s U.S. senators (one selected by the state legislature) voted against the resolution. The ninth and 10th most senior senators among the 96, they each held powerful positions. Sen. Furnifold Simmons was a staunch segregationist and white supremacist, a perpetrator of the infamous 1898 insurrection in Wilmington, now regarded as a “coup.” His fellow Tar Heel, Sen. Lee S. Overman, a Salisbury native who taught school two years in Winston, was an economic progressive with notable service to prominent state institutions. But in politics, he worked diligently and prominently to defeat anti-lynching legislation. He chaired the Overman Committee prompting America’s first Red Scare after World War I, perpetrating a sweeping “witch hunt” to root out supposed Bolshevists.

North Carolina was not, in fact, one of the 36 states to ratify what became the 19th Amendment on Aug. 18, 1920, assuring women the right to vote. It did so ceremonially a half-century later in 1971.

In North Carolina today, do those with power and those without it enjoy mutual respect? A state judicial panel has held that political gerrymandering by the North Carolina legislature is overriding the democratic votes of its citizens. Those citizens’ rights to cast those votes have been hard-earned throughout America’s history by revolution, civil war, civil rights movements and legislation, and, yes, by constitutional amendments. What autocratic actions by a legislative body wielding manipulated power while pretending to represent all North Carolinians could be more disrespectful than that?

Worried about caricature balloons? Think again. Demand respect for your vote.

Make sure you never miss our editorials, letters to the editor and columnists. We’ll deliver the Journal’s Opinion page straight to your inbox.

Randell Jones serves as a member of the Road Scholar Speakers Bureau of the North Carolina Humanities Council. He lives in Winston-Salem.

Load comments