Some mornings, President Woodrow Wilson would shut his eyes as he rode past the women who had assembled once again outside the White House. Occasionally he tipped his hat to them. He didn’t want a confrontation, but by the spring of 1917 it was clear that they weren’t going away. Wilson had claimed earlier in his presidency that he wasn’t aware women even wanted the vote. Plausible deniability was no longer an option.
The women had first appeared in the chill of January, silently holding banners that said: “Mr. President, you say liberty is the fundamental demand of the human spirit,” and “Mr. President! How long must women wait for liberty?” Bouts of miserable weather and jeering passersby came and went. The protests continued.
June brought chaos. After months of fragile peace, police started loading the women into paddy wagons. By autumn, hundreds of women had been arrested for obstructing the sidewalk outside the White House. Many of them were sent to prison. Newspapers reported that women were tortured at Occoquan, the Virginia workhouse where several prominent suffragists served time. The idea was “to break us down by inflicting extraordinary humiliation upon us,” Eunice Brannan told The New York Times after her release, in November. Brannan and others described being beaten repeatedly, dragged down stairs, thrown across rooms, kicked, manacled to prison-cell bars, denied toothbrushes, and forced to share a single bar of soap. Drinking water came from a dirty pail that sat in a common area. The guards, some of them marines from nearby Quantico, warned the women they’d be gagged and put in straitjackets if they spoke. Bedding was never washed, and the beans and cornmeal served to prisoners were crawling with maggots. “Sometimes the worms float on top of the soup,” one woman wrote in an affidavit. “Often they are found in the cornbread.” It wasn’t until the following spring that the D.C. Court of Appeals deemed the arrests unconstitutional.