On a Sunday afternoon in December 1917, several thousand women filled the Belasco Theater in Washington, D.C. for a mass meeting organized by the National Woman’s Party. The event was planned to honor the “self-respecting and patriotic American women” who had picketed the White House and served time in jail that summer and fall, including Alice Paul, the group’s charismatic leader who had recently been released after five weeks in prison. At the climax of the meeting, the eighty-nine women to be honored, all dressed in suffrage white, marched to the stage where they were presented with a small (1” by 1 ½”) brooch in the shape of the locked door of a prison cell.
The main inspiration for the prison pin was British: Sylvia Pankhurst’s “Holloway Brooch” which was distributed to members of the Women’s Social and Political Union who had served time in jail for the cause. Alice Paul, who was incarcerated three times in 1909 during her stay in England, received one of the pins, and copied it for the National Woman’s Party version. These metal brooches became treasured mementoes of membership in an incredibly select society. Many of the former pickets wore them for the rest of their lives.
In the 1940s long-time National Woman’s Party member Betsy Graves Reyneau showed her pin to Howard Law School student Pauli Murray, a civil rights activist and feminist who later developed the “Jane Crow” legal strategy linking race and sex discrimination. When Reyneau died in 1964, her daughter gave the pin to Murray, for whom it became “one of my most cherished possessions,” a literal link to the generations of feminist activists who preceded her.