Getting the President's Attention


Getting the President's Attention


Direct action strategies almost always start with a modest gesture, which is pilloried as inappropriate and impolite. Once activists escalate to more disruptive tactics, the earlier strategy is lionized as “the right way to protest.” Strategy thread.

More than a year before suffragists began picketing the White House, they tried getting President Wilson’s attention by asking for an appointment. Wilson was planning a public appearance in Philadelphia - at the swearing-in of 4,000 new citizens on May 10, 1915.

Alice Paul wanted him to feel suffragists’ presence everywhere he went, so she sent two emissaries: Dora Lewis and Anna Lowenburg to the White House to ask Wilson to meet with suffragists while in Philly. Dora Lewis was 20 years Alice’s senior and one of her closest confidantes.

From an established Philadelphia family, Dora Lewis had raised 4 young children after her husband was killed in a train accident. She was a longtime suffragist, active in NAWSA before shifting her allegiance completely to

Anna Lowenburg was a good partner for this mission: an officer of the Penn. Woman Suffrage Assoc, she had hiked to Washington with Rosalie Jones’ pilgrims in 1913, and then served as PA’s chief marshal in the pre-Inauguration march. She was also an immigrant, a Jew from Russia.

Lewis & Lowenburg were appropriate spokespeople for the women of Phila.; Lowenburg even more as a naturalized citizen. They wanted to know why the men whose naturalization Wilson celebrated would become voters, but no woman - native born or naturalized - would have the chance.

They spent three days at the White House waiting for a moment with the President. (Calling on POTUS in-person wasn’t unheard of then.) Wilson ignored them. Wilson's secretary, a man sympathetic to the suffragists, later apologized to Dora Lewis for the inconvenience.

The President couldn't see the suffragists because he was “necessarily engaged in matters which seemed to be of consequence to the whole world.” Expecting that Lewis & Lowenburg would be snubbed, Lucy arranged for newsreel photographers to meet them outside the White House.

Mainstream suffragists derided these tactics: Anna Howard Shaw criticized the women for “heckling” the president. To NAWSA leaders like Shaw & Carrie Chapman Catt, everything Alice Paul & Lucy Burns did smacked of the aggressive tactics they had learned in England.

The press adopted NAWSA’s tone and reported on a “siege” of the White House. Wilson was so irritated by two white women sitting in his antechamber that he got the newsreel men to scrap the footage.

In the end, world events overtook the story. Two days before the Philadelphia event, a German submarine torpedoed the ocean liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. It sank in 18 minutes, killing 1,200 civilians, 128 of them American.

Alice and Lucy, who had been debating whether to try and corner Wilson in Philadelphia, took the public’s temperature and decided to pull back. “[I]t does not seem the moment or place to start any more aggressive tactics,” Alice wrote Lucy on May 10. “¼ of those [Americans] lost on the Lusitania were Philadelphians and the city seems to be thinking of nothing else.” #Suffrage100 #19thAmendment


Daily Suffragist




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Daily Suffragist, “Getting the President's Attention,” Daily Suffragist, accessed August 17, 2022,

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