Wilson, the Great War, and Women's Right to Vote

On this date 100 years ago, Woodrow Wilson issued a Thanksgiving proclamation to a grateful nation.

“This year we have special and moving cause to be grateful and to rejoice,” the 28th U.S. president told a war-weary nation. “God has in His good pleasure given us peace.”

He continued: “Complete victory has brought us, not peace alone, but the confident promise of a new day as well in which justice shall replace force and jealous intrigue among nations.”

Wilson’s 1918 optimism would prove to be misplaced in all respects. Yes, Armistice Day had brought an end to what was then called the Great War. But its terms were so punitive toward Germany that it set in motion events that would lead to a second worldwide conflagration even more destructive and gruesome than the first. World War I led directly to the rise of Nazism, a totalitarian Communist takeover of Russia, and the exporting of a virulent form of anti-Semitism to the Arab world. 

The institution that Wilson foresaw as replacing “force and jealous intrigue” — the League of Nations — never really took hold in his lifetime. In large part, this was because the deadly horrors of European politics caused Wilson’s own country to retreat to an isolationist “America First” posture that was appealing, if unsustainable.

If the First World War can be said to have had any positive effect, however, it was here in the United States. I’m talking about how the war shaped the suffrage movement.

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Woodrow Wilson, like every presidential candidate who preceded him, was elected in 1912 almost exclusively by men — women could vote only in a handful of Western states. When he arrived in Washington for his inauguration, the throng he expected to find at Union Station hadn’t materialized. “Where are the people?” he inquired.

Watching the parade, he was told.

Remember the Women’s March the day after Donald J. Trump’s inauguration? Suffrage leader Alice Paul did the feminist leaders of the 21st century one better: She organized a march along the presidential parade route the day before Wilson’s inauguration.

It set up a competition between these two strong-willed Americans that lasted through most of Wilson’s presidency. By mid-1917, Alice Paul and her platoons of suffrage activists were picketing the White House daily. At first, Wilson was chivalrous; encountering a female protester, he’d tip his cap and say hello. Today, many would consider this patronizing, but what came next was much worse.

Wilson had won his second term on a promise to keep the United States out of World War I. This was a pledge he could not keep, and as American boys began dying on the battlefields of France, Wilson’s attitude toward the women picketing his residency hardened. With democracy on the line in the lethal trenches across the Atlantic, the president believed these women were missing the big picture. But this is exactly what Alice Paul thought about Wilson.

“There will never be a new world order,” she proclaimed, “until women are a part of it.”

In any event, with the president’s imprimatur, Washington, D.C., police began arresting the protesters and taking them to jail. When they went on hunger strikes, these women were force-fed, a procedure that generated increased sympathy for them. I can’t cite public opinion polls that would prove this to the satisfaction of a political scientist — such surveys did not exist in 1918 — but what seems to have happened was this: As American public opinion turned against U.S. involvement in Europe’s war, it turned in favor of the suffragists.

Woodrow Wilson certainly detected this shift. It appears to have occurred inside his own mind.

He helped turn the tide on September 30, 1918, when he finally came out in favor of what would become the 19th Amendment.

“We have made partners of the women in this war,” the president said in a speech to a joint session of Congress. “Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”

The midterm elections of 1918 solidified the suffragists’ momentum. Republicans captured both houses of Congress from the Democrats that year, a vote that was widely seen as a repudiation of Wilson’s foreign policy. But suffrage was a strong undercurrent that year, and on that issue, the GOP was more progressive than Democrats — and had been for many years. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter .