How World War I Helped Women Win the Right to Vote

2 minute read

Nailing down the cause of World War I is notoriously tricky, as are the factors that led the U.S. to join the fight—which it did 100 years ago this week, on April 6, 1917, after years of striving to remain neutral. But even those who remember Franz Ferdinand and the Zimmermann Telegram may not know the surprising, and often contradictory, role that American women played in that story.

One of the key roles women played was campaigning against joining it, as shown in the clip above, from the new PBS American Experience documentary The Great War. Alice Paul, a suffrage leader who was jailed for her protests, led the National Woman’s Party in demonstrating against the war. The case made by Paul and many other women was that the U.S. had no business fighting for democracy abroad when it didn’t live up to ideals at home.

“[World War I] changed not only our role in the world but changed us at home,” says executive producer Mark Samels in a statement on the film. “It was a time of stark choices — between pacifism and building up our military, between equal rights for everyone or for only a few.”

Wilson would eventually declare his support for suffrage for women, putting an end to the intense protests that had left women behind bars. But the role of women pushing a had gone beyond the suffragists, especially when it came to pacifism. As this second clip shows, women had been trying to keep the U.S. out of war for years. (The first woman in Congress, Jeannette Rankin, was likewise a force for pacifism.) American women had traveled to the Hague to try to do what they could to stop the war. Their leader Jane Addams, the “pioneer social worker, lecturer, pacifist, reformer,” as TIME once called her, would eventually share a Nobel Peace Prize for her work against war.

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The Great War premieres April 10–12.

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