Blog Post Jennifer Errick Aug 26, 2020

How a Group of Silent Women Won a Battle with President Wilson a Century Ago

The first organization to picket the White House launched a hard-fought campaign to win a major victory for women’s rights.

Washington, D.C., has a long history of hosting protests on every imaginable issue, and the White House is a frequent setting for organized rallies, marches and demonstrations. While it is common now to picket the presidential residence for a cause, this practice began just over a century ago when activist Alice Paul organized members of the National Woman’s Party to hold signs along Pennsylvania Avenue to persuade President Woodrow Wilson — and the country — to support women’s suffrage.

Despite jeering, violence and the steadfast opposition of the president she picketed — she won.

Paul and other members of the National Woman’s Party had met repeatedly with Wilson regarding the right to vote. During most of Wilson’s tenure, women only had full voting rights in 16 states, and the party supported a constitutional amendment to make women’s voting rights legal nationally. Wilson strongly opposed suffrage, however, and consistently rebuffed the women and their demands.

Several years earlier, Paul had traveled to England and happened to meet Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, prominent activists who often used militant tactics to fight for women’s suffrage. Paul joined the English movement while abroad and watched as the women she met were repeatedly arrested, suffered insults and violent attacks, and gained widespread publicity for their protests. When Paul returned to the states, she brought more radical and attention-grabbing strategies to the U.S. suffrage movement, realizing that writing letters and asking politely for civil rights was not winning attention or progress for the cause.

IN THE CARDS

Besides parades and pickets, Alice Paul’s suffragists used sophisticated lobbying tactics to advance their goals, keeping detailed information on congressional members’ voting records, hobbies, and relatives’ sentiment toward suffrage. The museum’s collections include about 3,000 voting cards.

Paul began organizing protests in January 1917, after another unproductive meeting with Wilson, and the demonstrations continued for two and a half years until the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote passed Congress in June 1919. The women dressed in color-coded sashes and stood silently in front of the White House with banners opposing the president. Their banners carried direct pleas, such as, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” The women became known as the Silent Sentinels.

At first, people generally tolerated the Sentinels, although some more moderate suffragists opposed their goal of a constitutional amendment, preferring a strategy of winning voting rights state by state and fearing a national movement would create a backlash. After the United States entered World War I in April 1917, sentiments largely turned against the protesters, who many Americans viewed as unpatriotic for criticizing the president during a war. The women endured insults and threats, had rotten fruit thrown at them, and sometimes had their signs taken away and ripped up by angry men.

Beginning in June 1917, police arrested Sentinels for obstructing traffic, even though the women were within their First Amendment rights to protest publicly. The arrests continued through the summer and fall, with increasingly longer sentences imposed on the women. Paul herself received the longest sentence of seven months, although she only ended up serving five weeks before being released. When given the choice, the protesters generally chose imprisonment over fines to demonstrate that they were willing to put their bodies on the line to win full civic rights.

Protesters faced unsafe and unsanitary conditions in jail, and Paul and some of the other women eventually went on a coordinated hunger strike to protest their treatment. Prison officials began force-feeding the women by putting towels over their faces and sliding raw eggs down glass tubes in their noses, causing vomiting, bodily stress and, in Paul’s case, long-term physical damage.

On the night of November 14, 1917, after months of tensions, the prison superintendent authorized nearly 40 prison guards to brutalize the protesters, dragging, beating, choking and kicking them in a wave of violence now known as the Night of Terror. Newspapers widely reported on the event and the broader suffering the women had endured, outraging Americans and drawing more support to the suffragist cause. Later that month, all of the protesters were released.

In the end, Wilson ended up supporting the 19th Amendment, not due to a change of heart, but due to a widespread change in political sentiment. As more Americans recognized that women were losing family members to the war without having a fair political say, people began supporting suffrage more broadly, and Wilson realized his party would lose at the polls if he did not also support the amendment.

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Nearly 2,000 women participated in the White House pickets that led to the adoption of the 19th Amendment, which went into effect 100 years ago this month. The amendment notably did not allow all women to vote — it prevented voter discrimination on the basis of sex. Other forms of discrimination continued, and still continue. Many Black, Indigenous and Asian American women remained unable to vote until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the 19th Amendment was a major achievement against discriminatory voter suppression.

For more than 90 years, the headquarters for the National Woman’s Party has stood just two miles from the White House, in a building that is now preserved in the National Park System as the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument. Although the organization no longer lobbies the president, the party fought for an Equal Rights Amendment for many years under Paul’s leadership. The organization continues to support education on women’s issues and houses a trove of historical documents on Paul and her supporters’ quest for full women’s equality.

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