Glenn Uminowicz - May 2007
The Justice of Woman Suffrage
Executive Director, Historical Society of Talbot County
We know that it is a burning injustice to hold women responsible for the welfare of the home and children and deny them a voice in the government, for we must remember that the government of today concerns itself as much with these special interests of women as it does with the special interests of men.
From Mary Bartlett Dixon, “The Justice of Woman Suffrage,”
Maryland Suffrage News (1913)
In March of 1913, just before his presidential inauguration, Woodrow Wilson arrived at the railroad station in the nation’s capitol. Looking around at the nearly empty depot, he asked someone, “Where are all the people?” The answer was that they had all gone to see the woman’s suffrage parade. Ten thousand women from all over the nation marched for the right to vote. A few days later, Wilson received a delegation of suffragists in a White House office. Alice Paul, a radical suffragist who would found the National Woman’s Party in 1916, led them. Among the other four women stood Mary Bartlett Dixon of Talbot County.
Dixon assumed a leading role in the Just Government League in Talbot County and fought for women’s right to vote until it was granted in 1920. She was active at the state level in the organization, often reporting on the activities of women’s rights advocates in the pages of the Maryland Suffrage News. She shared a similar background with state and national suffragist leaders. Edith Houghton Hooker, for example, founded the Just Government League of Maryland in 1909 and started the Suffrage News in 1912. Like Dixon, Hooker was a college-educated upper-middle-class Quaker. She was among the first women to enroll in the Johns Hopkins University Medical School. By 1920, Dixon had married Dr. Thomas S. Cullen, a professor at the Medical School, and Hooker had married one of his colleagues.
Since the time of Susan B. Anthony in the 19th century, Quaker women involved themselves in the suffrage issue. Alice Paul was among them. Her National Woman’s Party (NWP) represented the militant wing of the suffrage movement. The party utilized open public demonstrations to gain popular attention for the right of women to vote. Picketing, pageants, parades, and demonstrations—as well as subsequent arrests, imprisonments, and hunger strikes—were successful in spurring public discussion and winning publicity for the suffrage cause.
In Jailed for Freedom (1920), fellow suffragist Doris Stevens described Paul as a “Militant General.” She wrote,
In appearance Alice Paul is anything but menacing. Quiet, almost mouselike, this frail young Quakeress sits in silence and baffles you with her contradictions. Large, soft, gray eyes that strike you with a positive impact make you feel the indescribable force and power behind them. Tiny, fragile hands that look more like an X-ray picture of hands, rest in her lap in Quakerish pose. Her whole atmosphere when she is not in action is one of strength and quiet determination. In action she is swift, alert, almost panther-like in her movements. Dressed always in simple frocks, she conforms to an individual style and taste of her own rather than to the prevailing vogue.
Mary Bartlett Dixon followed the lead of this mouse-like “Militant General.” In 1917, she joined a group of suffragists who openly defied the President of the United States and set the stage for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote.
On January 10th, the first line of pickets appeared at the White House gates. One dozen suffragists carrying banners stood quietly in an effort to convince Woodrow Wilson to use the power of the presidency in support of the suffrage amendment. The initial response by the Wilson administration was to ignore the pickets. But women returned to the picket line day after day. Stevens observed that there were “all kinds of pickets.” She wrote, “The beautiful lady, who drove up in her limousine to do a twenty minute turn on the line, found it thrilling, no doubt. The winter tourist who had read about the pickets in her home paper thought it would be ‘so exciting’ to hold a banner for a few minutes.”
The backbone of the protest effort, however, was made up of women willing to grimly return to the picket line over and over again—women like Mary Bartlett Dixon. By November 1917, the pickets played upon themes used in the government’s propaganda efforts during World War I. They pointed to the hypocrisy inherent in fighting a war to make “the world safe for democracy” while denying women the right to vote at home. They drew unflattering comparisons between the president and the Kaiser.
Finally, the Wilson administration had enough. Alice Paul was arrested for “obstructing traffic” and sentenced to seven months in jail. With their leader safely behind bars, the thought was that the suffrage agitation would weaken. By contrast, in the late afternoon of November 10th, the longest picket line of the suffragist campaign formed along the White House fence. Among the forty-one women involved was Mary Bartlett Dixon. All were immediately arrested.
Dixon was lucky. Local authorities selected some of the suffragists to serve as examples by sentencing them to jail or the workhouse. Dixon was not among them. For those imprisoned, Stevens described the experience,
We entered a well-lighted office. Warden Whittaker consulted with the hard-faced matron, Mrs. Herndon, who began the prison routine. Names were called, and each prisoner stepped to the desk to get her number, to give up all jewelry, money, handbags, letters, eye-glasses, traveling bags containing toilet necessities. From there we were herded into the long bare dining room where we sat dumbly down to a bowl of dirty sour soup. An assistant matron relieves us of our clothes. Each prisoner is obliged to strip naked without even the protection of a sheet, and proceed across what seems endless space, to a shower bath. A large tin bucket stands on the floor and in this is a minute piece of dirty soap, which is offered to us and rejected. We dare not risk the soap used by so many prisoners. Naked, we return from the bath to receive our allotment of coarse, hideous prison clothes, the outer garments of which consist of a bulky mother-hubbard wrapper.
Members of the National Women’s Party responded to their imprisonment with a hunger strike, generating adverse publicity for the Wilson administration. Their militancy made the position of the moderate National American Woman Suffrage Association more acceptable to the president. The NAWSA leaders urged that democracy began at home and that suffrage should be granted as a “war measure.” In 1919, Wilson supported the suffrage amendment as “vital to winning the war.” In 1920, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the amendment, making it the law of the land.
Maryland suffragists like Dixon involved themselves in seeking ratification of the national suffrage amendment because their efforts met with such resistance at the state level. The House of Delegates repeatedly voted against granting women the right to vote. The majority of Maryland’s congressional delegation voted against the suffrage amendment. In 1920, Governor Albert Ritchie and the Democrats opposed passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, employing a states’ rights argument.
As the Nineteenth Amendment moved toward ratification, the Maryland Suffrage News reported that Eastern Shore women championed the cause. Suffragists rallied in Tilghman, Centreville, Chestertown, Easton, St. Michaels, Hurlock, Preston and Salisbury. When the polls opened in 1920, newspaper reports noted the large numbers of women arriving early to exercise their right to vote. In the presence of the ladies, men removed their hats and allowed the women to proceed ahead of them in line. These acts of gentlemanly courtesy at the polls occurred only because of the efforts of determined women like Mary Bartlett Dixon, who defied both a president and the political leadership of the Free State.