Power  /  Biography

She Asked President Woodrow Wilson For 22 Suffrage "Favors." She Got 21.

Wilson became a great supporter of the 19th Amendment, but only because he worked alongside a woman who spoke his language.

Woodrow Wilson despised Alice Paul, founder of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), and the feeling was mutual. He refused to have anything to do with her, especially as the NWP’s White House protests increased in intensity between 1917 and 1918.

You’ve likely seen the photographs of Paul and the NWP picketing the White House, demanding Wilson’s attention and his support for their right to vote. 

This image, and others like it, shape popular perceptions of the U.S. suffrage movement, and epitomize the “Iron Jawed Angels” version of suffrage history. Every year, photographs of suffragists picketing the White House appear at the top of articles during Women’s History Month, and especially  during last year’s suffrage centennial. I love a suffrage movie featuring Lauryn Hill songs as much as the next feminist historian, but these protesting suffragists do not explain how the 19th Amendment became law, much less Wilson’s role in the process.

These protests suggest that Wilson opposed the 19th Amendment,  when, in fact, the president helped secure public and congressional support for the measure, as well as its eventual ratification. Wilson, his top staff, and key members of his family worked closely together with leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), rivals of the NWP, to ensure that women—at least, white women—could vote in the 1920 election. 

The key to understanding Wilson’s complex and influential role in suffrage was a “fallen woman” turned NAWSA leader named Helen Hamilton Gardener.

After having lived a life worthy of her own HBO biopic—involving Civil War sacrifice, a highly-publicized sex scandal, a name change, a fake husband, cross-country lecture tours, and world travel—Gardener settled in Washington, D.C. in 1910 and joined the suffrage movement.  She even served as Alice Paul’s right-hand-woman in planning the 1913 suffrage march that coincided with Wilson’s inauguration. (Until 2017, this was the largest women’s march in U.S. history.) But their successful partnership was short-lived. Weeks after the iconic event, Gardener and Paul parted ways over tactics. Paul wanted to protest the White House; Gardener wanted to charm her way in.

To picket or not to picket? A life spent with one foot in high society and the other in poverty convinced Gardener she could do more good with her personal charms than by protesting. When Paul began “heckling” the president in the spring of 1916, Gardener wrote a charming letter of introduction to his chief of staff, including a list of congressional references, her calling card, a memo explaining the differences between the NAWSA and the NWP, and an invitation to tea for the First Lady. Gardener was invited to the White House the very next morning.

From that day on, the White House embraced Gardener and shunned Paul with equal enthusiasm. In Wilson’s archives, three women appear more often than any others: Gardener and Wilson’s two wives.