Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920
Biography of Mildred Morris, 1890-?
By Danelle Moon
Director, Special Research Collections, UC Santa Barbara
Suffragist, Journalist, Industrial Labor Activist
Mildred Morris of Denver, Colorado, worked as a journalist, and was known for her expertise in industrial labor relations. During World War I, she was employed by the Department of Labor and the Council on National Defense as a news correspondent. During this same time she was active with the National Woman's Party (NWP), reporting on the suffrage amendment. She played an active role in the "Watchfire Protests," an anti-President Wilson campaign used to pressure him to secure the final votes needed in Congress to pass the 19th Amendment granting U.S. women federal voting rights.
The Denver Express and the Rocky Mountain News place Morris in Colorado, where she worked as a newspaper woman and penned several articles related to the state suffrage movement, peace movement, and mining labor conflicts. According to secondary sources she specialized in industrial labor relations and reportedly came to Washington, D.C. working as a correspondent for the Labor Department, reporting on industrial labor disputes. One Congressional Report confirms her appointment as a newswoman during an appropriation hearing with testimony from Robert Creel, justifying the hiring of women journalists during World War I. She apparently earned $1400 annually while working for the Department of Labor. Creel made the case that newsmen were unwilling to move to D.C. to work on similar assignments and hired women at half the average salary of their male counterparts. (Sundry Civil Appropriations Bill, U.S. House of Representatives, Sundry Bill 1919, p. 21.)
The dates of her employment with the State Dept. have not been confirmed, though newspaper accounts and monographs seem to indicate that she worked simultaneously as a newswoman for various agencies, while performing her work as a consultant with the Labor Department, writing for The Suffragist and for the International News Service. She published several articles in a variety of national newspapers.
In the final push for suffrage, the NWP engaged in more extreme tactics to pressure President Wilson to more actively support woman suffrage by mounting an aggressive nonviolent resistance movement and drawing on a variety of publicity stunts that included burning an effigy of the President including his words, "touring a prison train of women," (Ford, 236), and organizing anti-Wilson demonstrations in D.C. Boston, and New York in early 1919; these events became known as the "Watchfire" protests for freedom; Mass arrests, hunger strikes, and forced feeding followed and negative publicity created a perfect storm for the final push for the 19th Amendment.
Morris actively participated in setting the watch fires in front of the White House in January of 1919, but before that, she and Emma Wold, a sister suffrage leader and newswoman, made plans to travel to Paris to report on Wilson's role in the peace conference held in Versailles; however, their passports were withdrawn by the State Department, fearing that the women would embarrass President Wilson by protesting his failure to actively pressure Congress to pass the suffrage amendment. Their affiliation with the NWP became a red flag as a potential disruption to Wilson's trip resulting in the rescinding of their passports, even though they both held credentials as journalists. Several newspapers reported on a failed plot of the NWP to disrupt Wilson's attendance in Paris, including anti-suffrage groups such as the Woman Patriot newspaper.
Following the failed journey to Europe and in response to Wilson's inaction on the suffrage amendment, the NWP regrouped and the executive board initiated a new, more militant strategy. Outraged by Wilson's promise for world democracy and his failure to recognize the human rights of women in the U.S., the NWP formulated a more aggressive approach to force a vote on the suffrage bill in Congress. Drawing on the very words of Wilson's campaign speech where he said "The world is on fire and there is tinder everywhere," the NWP took up a similarly branded rhetoric around the theme of fire and liberty; thus began the "Watch Fires of Freedom" protest that took place from January 1, 1919 through May of that year. Morris reported on the suffrage demonstrations and arrests for The Suffragist. In January of 1919, writing about the first demonstrations that included burning an effigy of the President and setting watch fires on the sidewalk of the White House. Morris in her writings rhetorically referenced the theme of fire and liberty. Hundreds of suffragists protested in front of the White House, on the Boston Commons and in New York. They made it clear to the President and Congress that American woman would no longer accept second-class status; Morris was also a ground organizer for the New York protest. (Beasley, Militant Citizenship, p. 166)
In Morris's article "New Year's Demonstrations," she framed the militancy in revolutionary terms drawing on the symbolism of liberty, equal rights, and fire. She wrote: "Rain falls and the flames dance as full and red as ever! Indomitable flames--as the women who guard them! All night the rain falls but the watchfire of freedom keeps burning." (The Suffragist, January 1919, p. 4)
Several accounts describe her role setting fire to the trees on White House grounds. Inez Haynes Irwin writing about the protests described Morris as "lighting the asbestos coils with her nimbus of flaming hair, Miss Morris seemed a flame herself. She was here, there, everywhere. The police could no more catch up with her as they could with a squirrel." (Irwin, 487). Linda Ford writes that the activists "became very adept…keeping the fires going," despite the efforts of the police to douse the flames. Describing the efforts of Morris, Ford writes: "Mildred Morris, a newspaper writer and investigator for the War Labor Board from Denver, became very good at lighting asbestos coils, the fires matching her flaming red hair. She once almost set off the White House trees." Sister suffragist Hazel Hunkins described Morris as "cynical, thin, wiry, her hair red with streaks of white as it stood out in all directions….[She] stopped at nothing . . . she slept where she happened to be . . . ate when she had money, drank too much and smoked endlessly. . . .She had to be carried out of her jail cell on a stretcher." [Ford, p. 238 cited from Suffragist Oral History Project, Mabel Vernon Oral History with Amelia Fry, p. 145, see: http://oac.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/kt2r29n5pb/?brand=oac4]
Morris's place in the militant suffrage movement is attached to "watchfire" protests and to the larger history of the Iron Jawed Angels and the arrests of non-violent female protestors who challenged the President and took direct political action as an exercise of free speech. The "watchfire" campaigns resulted in numerous arrests of mostly affluent and middle-class white women, and for a handful force feeding by prison officials. These events played an important role in pressuring the President and Congress to finally pass the 19th Amendment.
Morris deserves recognition for her participation in the "watchfire protests," as an early newswoman and as an expert on industrial labor relations. Following the suffrage victory, Morris continued to work as a news correspondent with the International News Review (INR), the Washington News, and others. In 1921, reporting for the INR, she and other male correspondents were wounded during a mining labor dispute in West Virginia. Morris was among a group of male correspondents reporting on the labor dispute that erupted in violence between the striking miners and the state militia. Morris was slightly injured and arrested briefly. The local authorities tried to censor the press and the Governor was forced to call in federal reinforcements to quell the violence. (The Fourth Estate, September 10, 1941, p. 2 &31, #1437).
In 1922, the Editor & Publisher reported that Morris resigned from the Washington staff of the Cosmopolitan Service and was planning to head to Europe to write for several other publications. In 1928, Equal Rights the NWP newsletter reported that Morris attended a NWP dinner and was a guest at National Headquarters for more than a week.
Morris' personal history remains a mystery and her birth and death dates are unconfirmed. Some sources estimate her birth year as 1901, but this is unlikely as she penned newspaper articles as early as 1914. She was likely in her mid-twenties in 1919, with an estimated birth year between 1890-1896.
The Census records and government documents are inclusive in determining her personal information. Newspaper accounts confirm that she resided in Denver, Colorado working as a newspaper woman, suffrage activist, and industrial labor activist. It is unclear whether she married, but the last known news account in 1928 referred to her as "Miss Mildred Morris" (estimated age 34) indicating her single status; Many women in her generation choose careers over marriage. (Zahniser, and Fry, p. 303).
Beasley, Vanessa B., ed., Militant Citizenship; Rhetorical Strategies on the National Woman's Party, 1913-1920. Watch Fires of Freedom, pp. 165-68; References MM's article, "The New Year Demonstrations," The Suffragist, May 17, 1919; "Rain falls and the flames of the dance as full red as ever! Indomitable flames--as indomitable the women who guard them. All night the rain falls but the watchfire of freedom keeps burning on!" (Beasley, p. 166)
Blevins, Tim; Pikes Peak Library District; Colorado Women's Hall of Fame. Extraordinary women of the Rocky Mountain West. Pikes Peake Library District, 2010.
Ford, Linda G. Iron-Jawed Angels: the Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman's Party, 1912-1920. University Press of America, 1991.
Irwin, Inez Haynes. The Story of Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party. Denlinger's Publishers, 1964.
Laugen, R. Todd. The Gospel of Progressivism: Moral Reform and Labor War in Colorado, 1900-1930. University of Colorado Press, 2010.
Stevens, Doris. Jailed for Freedom. New York: Boni and Liverlight, 1920.
Mead, Rebecca J. How the Vote was Won; Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868-1914. New York: NYU Press, 2004.
Weber, Sandra. The Woman Suffrage Statue: A History of Adelaide Johnson's Portrait Monument at the United States Capitol. McFarland & Co., 2016
Zahniser, Jill Diane & Ameila Fry. Alice Paul: Claiming Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Editor & Publisher, Sept. 10, 1921, Volume 54, pp. 8, 39, "No War but Bullets Censors Great Press in West Virginia," by Harold D. Jacobs.
Editor & Publisher, Vol. 55, Sept. 9, 1922, pg. 28 [Mildred Morris of the Washington staff of the Cosmopolitan Service has resigned and shortly expects to go to Europe where she will write several publications.]
Equal Rights, 50/15 (1928), p. 398.
The Fourth Estate, September 10, 1921, pp. 2, 31.
Jus SuffragII. June 1, 1914. pp. 123-24.
New York Times, February 12, 1919, p. 7.
The Suffragist, 52/7, January 18, 1919.
The Suffragist, 8/7, February 9, 1919, pp. 13-14.
The Suffragist, 8/7, February 22, 1919, pp. 6-7.
The Suffragist, May 17, 1919.
Sundry Civil Appropriations Bill, US. House of Representatives, "Sundry Bill 1919," pg. 21.
Washington Times, August 18, 1920, p 1. Action of Tennessee Ends 71-year Fight for Suffrage in U.S. by Mildred Morris.
The Woman Patriot, 8/2 (1919 August) Anti-Suffrage Notes, pp. 6-7. Now Boast of Secret "Card Index":
The Woman Patriot, 38/4 (1920), "NWP Secret Index," p. 7.
The Woman Patriot, 13/6 (1922), pp. 6-7
Emma Goldman Papers, 1918 Subscription List Mother Earth; Miss Mildred Morris, Pearl Apt., 1375 Pearl St., Denver Colorado (lacking a full citation), UC Berkeley, accessed online at http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~ryanshaw/bio/emma/Mother_Earth_Subscribers.pdf