March is Women’s History Month. Each week in March we will share stories from newspapers and letters of the early 20th century highlighting Jackson’s important role in the national suffrage campaign. These accounts have been gathered by historian Gay Wilson.
On January 21, 1919, the Nashville Tennessean newspaper declared, “Jail Doors Close on Tennessee Militant.”
The headline was not about Jackson’s most prominent suffragist Sue Shelton White – not yet. Her arrest would come a few weeks later.
The “Tennessee militant” was young Katherine Earnshaw. She was 25 years old and had moved from Jackson to Washington, D.C. to live with her sister Lucille Earnshaw and to work as a clerk at the U.S. Treasury. Lucille was a clerk at the War Department.
Katherine Earnshaw had joined the protests by the National Woman’s Party over failure of the federal government to pass the suffrage amendment. She was one of six suffragists arrested the evening of January 20 for building watch fires in front of the White House. Earnshaw was charged with “kindling fires after sunset.” She was released on bond for a hearing the next day.
At the time of Earnshaw’s arrest, Sue White was not in Washington, but in Nashville lobbying state legislators for their endorsements of the 19th Amendment.
Earnshaw stayed in Washington, D.C., but her sister eventually returned home to Jackson. Lucille and their brother Guy are buried in unmarked graves at Riverside Cemetery.
Sue White Goes to Prison
A few weeks later, on February 9, 1919, Sue Shelton White was arrested in Washington. She was among almost 100 women who marched to the White House with banners and gathered around an urn. A crowd of several thousand had assembled, standing for two hours listening to the speeches and watching the spectacle in anticipation of what may come next.
A fire was lit. Flames leapt skyward. White held high the words of an unfulfilled pledge by President Woodrow Wilson to extend democracy to women — then dropped the pledge into the fire. A three-foot paper effigy of Wilson also went up in flames.
White and 64 other women were arrested by civil and military police. The women kept up their protests and shouted at spectators as they were forced into patrol wagons. At the police station, the women refused to post bond and were jailed. White served five days in the filthy, harsh conditions of the Lorton Women’s Workhouse in Virginia.
After her release, White joined other former prisoners aboard the “Prison Special” train tour in February and March 1919. It was a cross-country speaking tour by 26 former suffragist prisoners to talk about their imprisonment and recruit supporters for the NWP.
Local Opposition to Protests
The response from West Tennesseans to the suffragists’ Washington protests was not wholly supportive. The editors of a local West Tennessee newspaper complained:
The female nuisances who made themselves conspicuous and offensive by picketing the White House for the purpose of annoying the President and members of his cabinet are just where they ought to be — in jail — and should be allowed to remain there until they promise, and make bond if necessary, to go to their homes, where they are doubtless of minimum use — and God pity the men they go back to.
Next week: The Men Who Spoke Up for Suffrage
Gay Wilson lives in downtown Jackson and is author of Some Woman Had to Fight: The Radical Life of Sue Shelton White.