August marks the 100th anniversary of the Woman Suffrage Amendment. Today’s post comes from Ben Miller, an intern with the Exhibits team at the National Archives Museum.
On September 13, 1913, a New York Times headline asked “What will New York do with Mrs. Pankhurst?” The woman in question was Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU) in Britain. With her daughters, Pankhurst led a militant campaign to win British women the right to vote. Her supporters in the WPSU organized protests, smashed windows, burned buildings, and staged hunger strikes to fight for their cause. In the fall of 1913, Pankhurst was on the run from a three-year prison sentence, and on her way to the United States.
Pankhurst’s impending visit, intended to raise funds for the WPSU, posed a dilemma for American officials and suffragists alike. Under U.S. immigration law, political radicals and people who committed crimes of “moral turpitude” were banned from the country. By prevailing standards, both of these exclusions applied to Pankhurst. Woodrow Wilson’s administration did not want to anger Britain by welcoming Pankhurst, a fugitive from their justice system, but was also loathe to deport her and infuriate feminist groups in the process.
America’s leading suffrage advocates were similarly divided. Pankhurst was the most famous advocate for women’s rights in the world, but her tactics were far more radical than what most American suffragists thought was appropriate or necessary for the U.S. Some American activists like Harriet Stanton Blatch planned to welcome Pankhurst. Others, like National American Woman Suffrage Association president Anna Howard Shaw were more hesitant. As the leader of the largest woman suffrage organization in the United States, Shaw worried that Pankhurst would distract attention and financial support away from the domestic suffrage cause.
In the lead-up to Pankhurst’s arrival in New York, different Americans lobbied for and against letting the suffragist leader into the country. Writing for her Women’s Political Union, Blatch wrote a letter to President Wilson insisting that Pankhurst be accepted, arguing that she should be welcomed just like recently admitted revolutionaries from Russia. Different feminist groups declared that excluding Parkhurst would confirm how easily disenfranchised women were ignored by the federal government. At the same time, other Americans were openly hostile to Pankhurst. In this letter to President Wilson, a Brooklyn resident called Pankhurst “one of the most monstrous women in the world” and warned that she would try to “revolutionize the homes of thousands of families.”
When Pankhurst reached Ellis Island on October 18, she was interrogated by immigration inspectors. They asked about each of Pankhurst’s arrests and convictions, most of which related to property destruction committed by her followers. They also questioned her intentions in America, which Pankhurst said were to “tell the real truth about the women’s case.” After a lengthy interview, the officials decided to deport Pankhurst as a felon who had committed crimes of “moral turpitude.”
The decision at Ellis Island ignited passionate debate across the United States. In letters to President Wilson and other officials, many Americans applauded the call to deport Pankhurst. They argued that no lawbreakers or “trouble breeders” should be ever admitted into the country, regardless of the cause for which they fought. Feminist groups thought the opposite, praising Pankhurst’s goals and writing that America should honor its revolutionary spirit by welcoming radicals who were fighting for a better world. Others mocked how scared their fellow Americans seemed to be of a single woman armed with words alone.
After several days of deliberation, the Wilson administration decided to intervene and admit Pankhurst into the country, provided she refrained from encouraging violence. In the following weeks, Pankhurst toured the country, speaking to crowds at Madison Square Garden and starring as herself in the silent film What 8,000,000 Women Want. By the end of December she returned to Britain with £4,500 (about $700,000 in today’s money) and was arrested almost as soon as she landed.
The debate over Pankhurst’s visit highlighted the growing political momentum of the woman suffrage cause in America. After more than doubling the number of states that allowed women to vote between 1910 and 1912, suffrage activists convinced Woodrow Wilson to assist a militant supporter of a cause he had yet to endorse. Though it took another seven years of lobbying to secure women’s constitutional right to vote in the 19th Amendment, this incident highlighted the political power that suffragists had already amassed.
The Pankhurst story also speaks to a broader debate over what kinds of people should be welcome in the United States. Americans who wanted Pankhurst to be deported were not just opposed to woman suffrage—many thought that welcoming radical activists of any kind threatened the nation’s social order and that the United States had nothing to gain from foreign peoples. Though anti-immigrant ideas and laws had deep roots in American political life, they reached fruition in the years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. By the early 1920s, the federal government closed America’s gates to revolutionaries and almost all other immigrants as well.
Learn more about woman suffrage activists and the Centennial of the 19th Amendment on our website.