Jailed for Freedom

A First-Person Account of the Militant Fight for Women's Rights


By Doris Stevens

Introduction by Angela P. Dodson

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The 100th-anniversary special edition of Jailed for Freedom, the essential history and first-person account of the courageous and militant suffragists who fought for their right to vote.
First published in 1920, Jailed for Freedom is the courageous, true story of the militant suffragists who organized some of the first-ever, large scale demonstrations and protests on Washington. At a time when President Woodrow Wilson’s administration refused to acknowledge women’s voting rights as a tangible issue, the National Woman’s Party coalesced, organized, and fought a fierce battle for the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment with heroism, bravery, and radical vigilance.
What makes Jailed for Freedom especially compelling and such an important contribution to women’s history is that it is a personal testimony from a suffragist who persevered through it. With depth and clarity, Doris Stevens details the bravery of the women who picketed daily outside the White House, opened themselves up to ridicule and physical violence, were arrested on no viable charges, jailed when they chose not to pay fines, and even beaten and force-fed when they went on hunger strikes.
Including a new introduction from suffrage historian Angela P. Dodson, author of Remember the Ladies, and accompanied with poignant, archival illustrations, Jailed for Freedom is a tribute to the women and acts it took the pass the Nineteenth Amendment, apropos of radical activism that is still mobilizing in politics today.


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This book deals with the intensive campaign of the militant suffragists of America [1913–1919] to win a solitary thing—the passage by Congress of the national suffrage amendment enfranchising women. It is the story of the first organized militant political action in America to this end. The militants differed from the pure propagandists in the woman suffrage movement chiefly in that they had a clear comprehension of the forces which prevail in politics. They appreciated the necessity of the propaganda stage and the beautiful heroism of those who had led in the pioneer agitation, but they knew that this stage belonged to the past; these methods were no longer necessary or effective.

For convenience sake I have called Part II “Political Action,” and Part III “Militancy,” although it will be perceived that the entire campaign was one of militant political action. The emphasis, however, in Part II is upon political action, although certainly with a militant mood. In Part III dramatic acts of protest, such as are now commonly called militancy, are given emphasis as they acquired a greater importance during the latter part of the campaign. This does not mean that all militant deeds were not committed for a specific political purpose. They were. But militancy is as much a state of mind, an approach to a task, as it is the commission of deeds of protest. It is the state of mind of those who in their fiery idealism do not lose sight of the real springs of human action.

There are two ways in which this story might be told. It might be told as a tragic and harrowing tale of martyrdom. Or it might be told as a ruthless enterprise of compelling a hostile administration to subject women to martyrdom in order to hasten its surrender. The truth is, it has elements of both ruthlessness and martyrdom. And I have tried to make them appear in a true proportion. It is my sincere hope that you will understand and appreciate the martyrdom involved, for it was the conscious voluntary gift of beautiful, strong and young hearts. But it was never martyrdom for its own sake. It was martyrdom used for a practical purpose.

The narrative ends with the passage of the amendment by Congress. The campaign for ratification, which extended over fourteen months, is a story in itself. The ratification of the amendment by the 36th and last state legislature proved as difficult to secure from political leaders as the 64th and last vote in the United States Senate.

Doris Stevens, May 1919

This book contains my interpretations, which are of course arguable. But it is a true record of events.

Doris Stevens

New York, August, 1920



“When all suffrage controversy has died away it will be the little army of women with their purple, white and gold banners, going to prison for their political freedom that will be remembered. They dramatized to victory the long suffrage fight in America. The challenge of the picket line roused the government out of its half-century sleep of indifference,” Doris Stevens wrote triumphantly in Jailed for Freedom.1

Stevens published the book in 1920 when the memories of galvanizing the movement were still fresh. A century later, however, as we celebrate the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, those recollections have faded. Instead, our collective memory is largely a more-sanitized picture of women in flowing white dresses marching resolutely but merrily down broad avenues, carrying their banners, waving, and even pushing babies in strollers, undisturbed by mobs of protestors or police.

Nearly forgotten is the dark, brutal episode in our history in which roughnecks, undeterred, accosted scores of women who were picketing peacefully and lawfully at the White House, the U.S. Capitol, and nearby parks. Police yanked the women off the sidewalks and arrested them, but not the attackers, for “obstructing traffic.” The officers herded women—young, old, mothers, grandmothers, professionals, socialites, heiresses—into police wagons. Judges sentenced them, generally in rigged proceedings, to ever-increasing terms to be held in dank, unsanitary dungeons where their food was unpalatable and sometimes worm infested, as Stevens recounts.

Even those who know this happened in the United States of America may never have read a full account of the hideous violence visited upon women who merely asked for a voice in our democracy. This is that account, told in vivid detail with searing commentary by a woman who witnessed many of the events.


A native of Omaha, Nebraska, born in 1888, Stevens was an insider in Alice Paul and Lucy Burns’s organization, the National Woman’s Party (NWP), serving as chief strategist and chair of the party’s political department.

Stevens joined the struggle for woman suffrage before graduating from Oberlin College in 1911. She became a teacher, a social worker, and a regional organizer for the NWP. When she came to Washington to take part in a demonstration at the Senate in 1913, Paul cajoled her into staying in the city indefinitely.

In the 2004 movie Iron Jawed Angels about Paul (played by Hilary Swank) and her supporters, Stevens is depicted by the actress Laura Fraser. Stevens was among the first of Paul’s corps of suffragists to go to jail, arrested with fifteen others, for “obstructing traffic,” July 14, 1917. The sentence was sixty days in a workhouse, but they received a presidential pardon and were released after three days.2

“Never before have sixteen American women—women of refinement and social position—been committed to a penal institution set aside for the derelicts of the city,” the New York Sun reported. “Never before have American mothers and wives endured such humiliation and punishment for a cause in which they believed.”3

Stevens was arrested again with Paul and others in New York City in March 1919.

This updated edition of Jailed for Freedom offers insights into the thinking, tactics, and goals of the women who formed the most radical wing of the woman suffrage movement. Jailed for Freedom chronicles NWP’s activities from 1915 to 1919, ending with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment by Congress on June 4, 1919. Ratification would not come for another fourteen months.

By then, American women had been pleading for the vote for more than seven decades. In 1846, six women in New York State sent a petition to the state Constitutional Convention demanding suffrage for the “female portion of the community.”4 Two years later, Elizabeth Cady Stanton famously demanded voting rights in a resolution at the Woman’s Rights Convention, hastily assembled and attended by about three hundred men and women at Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19–20, 1848. “Resolved, That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”5

Stanton’s inclusion of that plea both startled and dismayed fellow organizers of the gathering, including Lucretia Mott, a renowned preacher and abolitionist from Philadelphia. Voting conflicted with her Society of Friends (Quaker) ideals, which eschewed participation in government. The other organizers—Jane Hunt, Martha Wright, Mary Ann M’Clintock, and her daughters—were Quakers too.6

“Those who took part in the debate feared a demand for the right to vote would defeat others they deemed more rational, and make the whole movement ridiculous,” according to The History of Woman Suffrage.7

Stanton’s own husband had refused to attend when she insisted on including suffrage among the resolutions. Only Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist orator, rose in defense of the resolution and carried the day. The assembly narrowly adopted the resolution, and in the end, sixty-eight women and thirty-two men signed the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” that day.


A decade of women’s rights conventions followed Seneca Falls, but the demand for the vote was not at the top of the agenda for many years to come. Those gatherings focused on all the other deprivations the women of Seneca Falls had gathered to discuss: the rights to own property, to divorce, to have custody of children, to enter occupations, to control money, to receive an education, to be church leaders, and even to be a legal entity apart from one’s husband.

Abigail Adams, who had implored her husband in a letter on March 31, 1776, to “remember the ladies” as he was attending the Second Continental Congress, probably had those rights in mind. Her letter spoke of “not putting so much power into the hands of the husbands.”8 Adams apparently thought the Congress, which had convened in May 1775, might rewrite ancient British laws (including those constricting women’s rights) as it created a new nation, but it did not. Once the Congress issued the “Declaration on Independence,” which helped set off the American Revolution, it urged the new states to draft constitutions. Among them, only New Jersey gave women, along with all citizens with a certain amount of property, the right to vote in 1776, and it revoked that right for women and for black men in 1807.9 The U.S. Constitution ratified in 1788 did not address voting, leaving the states free to set rules.

The Adams letter had warned that women would “foment a rebelion” if their rights were not addressed, but no such resistance ensued. Women remained relatively silent on public issues until the abolition movement motivated many of them to speak publicly. The first was Maria W. Stewart of Boston, a free black woman, in the 1830s, followed by Angelina and Sarah Grimké, white sisters born of slaveholders who moved to Philadelphia and became Quakers.

Silenced and shunned in male abolitionist societies, Lucretia Mott and other women, black and white, formed their own organizations, and Mott often said she considered their meetings in the late 1830s the start of the women’s movement, not Seneca Falls ten years later.10 She did express support for woman suffrage not long after Seneca Falls and became one of the movement’s most-revered leaders.11

Suffragists demonstrating against Woodrow Wilson in Chicago, 1916. Several African-American women can be seen protesting on the left side.

Still, voting did not become a primary goal of the women’s movement until after the Civil War. Women had worked hard during the war—as nurses, laborers, and spies—and many had sacrificed fathers, husbands, and sons to it. The women’s rights advocates had suspended conventions during the war, but several of them did embark on an abolitionist lecture tour early in the war. Among them were Stanton, who had been largely absent from conventions for a decade while raising seven children, and Susan B. Anthony, who had begun attending women’s rights conventions in the late 1850s. As the war progressed, Stanton and Anthony set up the Women’s Loyal National League to lobby for the Thirteenth Amendment to formally enshrine emancipation in the U.S. Constitution.


After the Civil War ended, radical Republicans who dominated Congress pushed through the Reconstruction Amendments: the Thirteenth, abolishing slavery; the Fourteenth, granting citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including the formerly enslaved, and offering vague voting protections for male citizens over age twenty-one; and the Fifteenth, forbidding denial of voting rights for citizens “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The women’s rights leaders had believed it was solely up to the states to grant voting rights, but as debates on the amendments began, it dawned on them that if the Constitution could grant a class of men the vote, it could and should grant women the vote. After all, they had earned it, and they deserved it. Above all, enfranchisement could help women overcome other legal obstacles.

Wendell Phillips, a white Bostonian, who had just become president of the American Anti-Slavery Society in May 1865, was a long-term advocate for women’s rights. However, he was adamant that it would be hard enough to win the vote for the freedmen without trying to secure the vote for women at the same time. “As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘One war at a time,’ so I say, ‘One cause at a time.’ This hour belongs to the Negro,” Phillips said.12

Shocked that their old allies did not support them, Anthony and Stanton seethed over the thought of this as “the Negro’s hour.” Indeed, Stanton began to write viciously racist editorials in a women’s rights newspaper they had established, advocating “educated suffrage.” She referred to black men and immigrants as “Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung,” men too ignorant to vote. Anthony, Stanton, and Lucy Stone (another suffrage leader) petitioned Congress for an amendment that would prohibit states from interfering with the elective franchise on account of sex. They began advocating for “universal suffrage”—for women and black men—and referred to themselves for the first time as “suffragists.”

A showdown over the issue came on May 10, 1866, when the eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention met in New York City, the first such gathering since before the war. Stanton presided and opened it declaring that its purpose was to “discuss the right and duty of women to claim and use the ballot.” Anthony read a declaration asserting that “disenfranchisement in the republic is as great an anomaly, if not cruelty, as slavery itself.”13

Frances E. W. Harper, a free-born African American poet and abolitionist lecturer, quickly rejected the comparison to slavery. Declaring that women and men, black and white, were “all bound up together,” she argued that it was pointless to argue who should get the vote first.14

Sojourner Truth, another black abolitionist orator and preacher, spoke at another convention in May 1867 at the invitation of Anthony in support of giving women the vote. “Now that there is a great stir about colored men’s getting their rights is the time for women to step in and have theirs,” she said.15

Out of the New York City assembly was born the American Equal Rights Association, which strived to work for universal suffrage. Formed in 1866, it was short-lived. The Fifteenth Amendment passed Congress in February 1869, and the association met in May of that year. A former abolitionist ally, Stephen S. Foster, challenged Stanton’s name on a slate of officers and suggested instead that she resign the organization because her editorial views were at odds with its principles recognizing “the equality of men—universal suffrage.”

“These ladies stand at the head of a paper which has adopted as its motto Educated Suffrage,” he said. “I put myself on this platform as an enemy of educated suffrage, as an enemy of white suffrage, as an enemy of man suffrage, as an enemy of every kind of suffrage except universal suffrage.”

Stanton’s old friend Frederick Douglass praised her work on women’s rights, then excoriated her for not recognizing that giving the freedmen the vote was “a matter of life and death” in the face of Southern terrorism.

“When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains dashed out upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own,” Douglass said.

Others took sides as well. Anthony stood by Stanton, of course, but Frances Harper, Lucy Stone, and others supported a resolution calling for the organization to support the Fifteenth Amendment while continuing to work for woman suffrage.16 No action was taken, and the meeting ended abruptly.


Within two days, Stanton and Anthony held a meeting to form the National Woman Suffrage Association to work for women’s enfranchisement through a federal amendment and against the Fifteenth Amendment. Stone and some other activists were not invited, and men were not welcome. A few months later, Stone with the help of the writer Julia Ward Howe, launched her own organization, the American Woman Suffrage Association. Henry Ward Beecher, a Brooklyn, New York, minister, became its first president. It would work for woman suffrage through state referenda and for ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which was achieved on February 3, 1870.

The state-by-state approach for woman suffrage was particularly onerous, as the suffragists had to travel under primitive conditions to persuade male voters to enfranchise women, while powerful political and industrial forces resisted every effort. In 1872, Susan B. Anthony also tested a theory that the Fourteenth Amendment gave women the vote by leading a delegation to the polls to vote in Rochester, New York, and was subsequently jailed.

To jump-start the federal campaign, Anthony had drafted an amendment, hoping to make it the Sixteenth. It said, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Senator Aaron Augustus Sargent, Republican of California and the husband of a leading suffragist named Ellen Clark Sargent, introduced it on January 10, 1878. It took eight years for it to make it to the floor of either house for debate. The Senate took it up for debate in December 1886 and defeated it in January 1887. The amendment was introduced in every session of Congress until 1896, when it just dropped off the legislative agenda.

Meanwhile, the two suffrage factions remained at odds until 1890, long enough for a new generation to arise, one that was not vested in old rivalries and ineffective tactics. Alice Stone Blackwell (Lucy Stone’s daughter) and Harriot Stanton Blatch (Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter) brokered a merger, forming the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) on February 18, 1890. This eliminated duplication of expenses and consolidated resources.

Stanton was its first president, but from the beginning, Anthony was the driving force. She became president in 1892. In that position, she undertook a new course with the “Southern strategy,” devised to attract women of that region to the cause. Women of the South had not shown much interest, but their voices would be needed to lobby for an amendment. Though white Southerners had largely suppressed or bought black men’s votes, what white supremacists feared most was black women getting the vote. To court the Southerners, Anthony shunned black women’s efforts to join the suffrage activities. She also asked Douglass not to attend a convention in Atlanta, lest his presence offend bigoted hosts. Douglass had been a friend of Anthony’s and her family since she was a young woman. He had remained active in the suffrage movement, despite his confrontation with Stanton after the Civil War, and continued to do so until the day he died in 1895 after attending a women’s conference.

The old guard was dying out—Lucretia Mott in 1880, Lucy Stone in 1893, Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1902, and Susan B. Anthony in 1906. Anthony had retired from NAWSA in 1900 but groomed new leadership, including Dr. Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt. A former teacher and journalist from Iowa, Catt assumed the presidency of NAWSA, followed by Shaw, a medical doctor and minister, in 1904. Catt served again from 1915 to 1920. She introduced some new strategies and raised the profile of the movement. Still, legislative victories were few and far between. By 1910, only eight states had adopted amendments allowing women to vote, all in the West: Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Washington, California, Oregon, and Arizona. (By 1919, women had full voting rights in fifteen states and limited rights in some others.)


Harriet Stanton Blatch had been living in Britain with her husband and came home in 1902 to find the movement tepid and uninspiring, compared to the militancy of the “suffragettes” in that country whose tactics included arson, rock throwing, and breaking windows. Blatch organized the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women in New York in 1907. The league reached out to the growing number of working women and introduced the idea of having attention-getting parades and outdoor rallies. Blatch spearheaded annual parades in New York City from 1910 to 1913. Catt had also visited Britain and, while unconvinced that the most militant tactics would work at home, thought the movement could use new energy. She soon found it.

Alice Paul and Lucy Burns had also been studying in Britain and had participated in the movement there. With the Brits, they picketed, disrupted meetings, went to jail, joined hunger strikes, and endured forced feedings. When they returned home, they joined the NAWSA and persuaded Dr. Shaw to let them lead the efforts to secure passage of the federal suffrage amendment and to organize a grand parade in Washington, D.C. The Woman Suffrage Procession would be the day before the inauguration of president-elect Woodrow Wilson, an avowed opponent to woman suffrage, in 1913.

Controversy surrounded the parade before it started. After other organizers warned her that Southerners might not march with black suffragists, Paul agreed to exclude African Americans. Then, NAWSA’s top leaders ordered that African Americans be permitted to march if they wanted.17 Adella Hunt Logan, an educator at Tuskegee Institute, encouraged black women to participate and solicited the help of Mary Church Terrell, who had been cofounder and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women. On the day of the parade, Terrell escorted founders of a new sorority, Delta Sigma Theta of Howard University. Paul said she assigned them to the college women’s section, but organizers on the spot reportedly asked black marchers to assemble at the rear of the procession to make their presence less obvious.18

Ida B. Wells, 1891. Photograph of a reproduction of a portrait of Frederick Douglass by George Kendall Warren, taken in 1876

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, founder of the Alpha Suffrage Club, activist and editor, was an Illinois delegate. She protested orders to segregate her from her state unit. She lost an appeal to her delegation to defy the organizers. Pretending to comply, she disappeared but stepped out of the crowd and into line with the Illinois delegation as it passed.19

The procession was barely under way, however, when rowdy spectators attacked, trampled, and crushed marchers. The melee nearly brought the procession to a halt. Up to two hundred people suffered injuries, many requiring hospitalization. Police did little to protect them, but the U.S. Cavalry eventually came to the rescue.

The parade of more than five thousand marchers was successful in drawing attention to the movement, and Paul began to escalate efforts for the amendment, leading delegations to the White House, petitioning Congress, and sending out cross-country caravans. She and Burns parted ways with the NAWSA over tactics, goals, and finances. The two then began the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage and later the National Woman’s Party.


The party’s purpose was to get President Wilson to support suffrage and, as head of the Democratic Party, to press Congress to adopt an amendment. Democrats held majorities in both houses of Congress. Targeting the leading party was a tactic borrowed from the British suffrage leaders. The NWP worked against Democratic candidates in the 1916 elections, but Wilson was reelected despite their best efforts.

Wilson insisted that he could not act unless his party made suffrage part of its platform and that it was a matter best left to the states through referenda. Paul sent delegation after delegation to the White House to meet with him to convince him otherwise.

On January 10, 1917, the day after one fruitless visit, the National Woman’s Party dispatched members—“Silent Sentinels”—to picket at the White House.

“The intrepid women stood their long vigils, day by day, at the White House gates, through biting wind and driving rain through sleet and snow as well as sunshine,” Stevens wrote.20

They carried banners with slogans like “Mr. President! How long must women wait for liberty?” The press and lawmakers castigated and ridiculed them, but the Wilson administration and the public initially tolerated them. Sometimes, Wilson would even tip his hat at them as he came and went. He asked guards to invite them in for tea when it was particularly cold, but they declined.

Wilson was busy making plans to enter World War I, and after Congress passed a war resolution in April 1917, the Sentinels began carrying signs suggesting that a country that did not allow its own women to vote could not police democracy in the world. One banner read:

We women of America tell you that America is not a democracy.

Many people considered their protests unpatriotic in a time of war. Mobs often attacked them, and the police chief warned Paul that picketers would be arrested if they continued. She insisted that their protests were legal and that they would go on.

On June 22, 1917, two Sentinels were arrested, ostensibly for “obstructing traffic.” They were dismissed without sentence, but as the picketing continued and police arrested more women, jail terms were imposed for longer and longer sentences. Police made more than two hundred arrests, and nearly one hundred women went to the D.C. Jail or the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. In both, they endured beatings, contaminated food, and wretched sanitation. Most went on hunger strike, and their jailers force-fed them by holding them down, stuffing a tube down their nose or throat as they gagged, and pouring a liquid concoction directly into their stomachs. In October 1917, Paul herself was jailed and held in a psychiatric ward.


  • "Jailed for Freedom is one of the great first drafts of history: a riveting contemporary chronicle of the finale of American women's long fight to win the vote. Doris Stevens' in-the-trenches journalistic memoir of the National Women's Party campaign of protest and pressure -- and the government's response of imprisonment and torture -- was published a century ago, but remains fresh and important today. Angela P. Dodson's excellent introduction places the dramatic events into context; it is essential reading for the suffrage centennial -- and especially vital for a new generation of grassroots activists seeking to spur change."—Elaine Weiss, author of The Woman's Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote
  • "Jailed for Freedom is at once a compelling drama and a field guide for direct action in the cause of justice, as Doris Steven takes the reader into the inner workings of the militant suffragist push during the final decade of the fight for the vote. From the pageantry of parades to picketing the White House to burning the President in effigy, the escalation spawned by disinterest, then opposition, of the Oval Office follows the logical plan of Alice Paul's Woman's Party. First spurned by the public, the activists gained sympathy, then empathy, and finally support as they were attacked by the police, jailed and force-fed. With Angela P. Dodson's new introduction smartly contextualizing the classic, Jailed for Freedom is required reading for the 2020 suffrage centennial and beyond."—Sally Roesch Wagner, founding executive director of The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation and editor of The Women's Suffrage Movement
  • "We welcome this republication of Jailed for Freedom and Angela P. Dodson's introduction; a comprehensive and insightful look at the suffrage story, it details an important chapter in the long struggle to extend democracy to more than half of the American populace."—Lucy Beard, executive director of the Alice Paul Institute
  • "Doris Stevens was only in her early thirties when she wrote Jailed for Freedom, but she was already a seasoned veteran of the struggle for the vote. Her chronicle of the passion and commitment of militant suffragists still resonates today. This book belongs in every feminist activist's library."—Susan Ware, author of Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote

On Sale
Mar 3, 2020
Page Count
320 pages

Doris Stevens, author of Jailed for Freedom

Doris Stevens

About the Author

Doris Stevens was an American suffragist, woman’s legal rights advocate, and author. Born in 1888, she was the national strategist for the National Woman’s Party and was also the first female member of the American Institute of International Law and first chair of the Inter-American Commission of Women.

Learn more about this author