“You mustn’t do this again,” a Secret Service agent told her after forcibly pulling Mabel Vernon back from her position just in front of the podium. She was in the audience at a 1916 speech President Woodrow Wilson was giving on democracy at the Labor Temple in Washington, DC.
“Mr. President,” she called out, “if you consider it necessary to forward the interest of all the people, why do you oppose the national suffrage movement?”
“You mustn’t do this again,” the agent told her. “I won’t, unless it seems necessary,” Vernon replied.
The Wilmington, DE native by this point had been active nationally in the suffrage movement for a decade. Her Swarthmore College friend Alice Paul, one of the movement’s leaders, had convinced her to quit teaching high-school German and get involved. The 23 year old’s speaking and fundraising skills propelled her to organize the Delaware headquarters of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, which later became the National Woman’s Party.
Nor was Vernon’s 1916 presence at Wilson’s speech her first time in Washington DC on behalf of the suffrage issue. In July 1913 she organized a protest caravan from Wayne, PA to the Capitol. Hers was one of a number of such groups converging from all parts of the country to petition the Senate to act immediately on a proposed constitutional amendment giving women the vote. To drum up support and interest, Vernon headed a ‘Votes for Women’ “roller chair” [wheelchair] parade along the Atlantic City boardwalk in late June.
“Flying banners and pennants of Suffrage yellow will add to the brilliancy of the march,” said the Evening Journal [Wilmington], “beside having the effect much desired by the enthusiasts—namely, attracting public attention to the suffrage activities which they are anxious to start in Atlantic City and all the New Jersey resorts.”
Mabel Vernon had gathered a large crowd around her at parade end. “We assume that woman suffrage is bound to come, the thing we are concerned with is, how soon, and as the quickest way is an amendment to the Federal constitution, that is what we are working for,” she called out to her listeners.
A local cop worked his way up to her.
“We never have any kind of meetings on the boardwalk here,” he told Vernon according to the Washington Post, “and therefore you will have to stop.”
“But I have a permit from Mayor Riddle, and I will not stop,” she replied.
The policeman told her that if anyone in the crowd wanted her to stop he would be obliged to disregard the permit. He then asked the crowd if anyone objected to her speaking.
“A small weazened man said he objected,” reported the Post, “and the policeman told her to stop. But she appealed to the crowd, and they shouted for her to go on in such a manner that the policeman and the small man beat a hasty retreat.
“But I followed the policeman, and got him to sign my petition,” Vernon told the Washington Post.
The Delaware Chapter of the National Organization for Women presented a citation to Mabel Vernon towards the end of her long life (she lived from 1883-1975), as “one of the heroic foremothers of the movement to liberate women from the shackles of male chauvinism.”
Vernon’s response was characteristic. “Finish up on the Equal Rights Amendment,” she told a NOW representative, “just as we had to come in and finish the fight for the national suffrage amendment. I’m proud my native state has already approved it.”