Silent Sentinels

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Silent Sentinels picketing the White House.

The Silent Sentinels were a group of women in favor of women's suffrage organized by Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party to protest in front of the White House during Woodrow Wilson's presidency. Their vigil started January 10, 1917 and lasted until June 1919 when the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution passed both the House of Representatives and Senate. During those two and a half years, more than a thousand different women picketed every day and night except Sunday, and many were arrested during the vigil.

Banners[edit]

The following are examples of banners held by the women:

  • "Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?"
  • "Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?"
  • "We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts--for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments." [1]
  • "Democracy Should Begin at Home"
  • "The time has come to conquer or submit, for us there can be but one choice. We have made it." (another quotation from Wilson)
  • "Kaiser Wilson, have you forgotten your sympathy with the poor Germans because they were not self-governed? 20,000,000 American women are not self-governed. Take the beam out of your own eye." (comparing Wilson to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and to a famous quote of Jesus regarding hypocrisy)

The NWP's colors were purple, white and gold, which were also the usual color of banners.

Response[edit]

A Sentinel with a banner

At first, Wilson ignored the protesters. But public opinion about the protests changed after April 6, 1917, when the United States entered World War I. Spectators assaulted the protesters, both verbally and physically. However, police did nothing to protect the protesters.

On June 22, 1917, police arrested protesters Lucy Burns and Katherine Morey on charges of obstructing traffic because they carried a banner quoting from Wilson's speech to Congress: "We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts--for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments." These charges were dropped. Then on June 25, 12 women were arrested, including Mabel Vernon and Annie Arniel from Delaware, again on charges of obstructing traffic. They were sentenced to three days in jail or to pay a $25 fine. They chose jail. On July 14, 16 women, including Florence Bayard Hilles and Elizabeth Selden Rogers (of the politically powerful Baldwin, Hoar & Sherman family) were arrested and sentenced to 60 days in jail or to pay a $25 fine. Again, the women chose jail. After serving three days in the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia (now the Lorton Correctional Complex), Wilson pardoned the women. After a heated debate, the House of Representatives created a committee to deal with women's suffrage in September 1917. Massachusetts Representative Joseph Walsh opposed the creation of the committee, thinking the House was yielding to "the nagging of iron-jawed angels." He referred to the Silent Sentinels as "bewildered, deluded creatures with short skirts and short hair."[2]

An account of the events is given by Doris Stevens in Jailed for Freedom[3]

As the suffragists kept protesting, the jail terms grew longer. Finally, police arrested Alice Paul on October 20, 1917, while she carried a banner that quoted Wilson: "The time has come to conquer or submit, for us there can be but one choice. We have made it." She was sentenced to seven months in prison. Paul and many others were again sent to the Occoquan Workhouse, where Paul was placed in solitary confinement for two weeks, with nothing to eat except bread and water. She became weak and unable to walk, so she was taken to the prison hospital. There, she began a hunger strike, and others joined her.

In response to the hunger strike, prison doctors placed Paul in a psychiatric ward and threatened to transfer her to St. Elizabeths Hospital, an insane asylum. She still refused to eat. Doctors became afraid that she might die, so three times a day for three weeks, they forced a tube down her throat and poured liquids into her stomach. They force fed her substances that would have as much protein as possible, like raw eggs mixed with milk. One physician reported that she had "a spirit like Joan of Arc, and it is useless to try to change it. She will die but she will never give up."

Despite this seeming regard for Paul's health, those at the prison deprived her of sleep. They directed an electric light at her face and turned it on briefly every hour of every night. There were also reports of worm-infested food and unsanitary conditions for the jailed protesters.

On the night of November 15, 1917, the superintendent of the Occoquan Workhouse, W.H. Whittaker, ordered the nearly forty guards to brutalize the suffragists. They beat Lucy Burns, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head, then left her there for the night. They threw Dora Lewis into a dark cell and smashed her head against an iron bed, which knocked her out. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, who believed Lewis to be dead, suffered a heart attack. According to affidavits, guards grabbed, dragged, beat, choked, pinched, and kicked other women.

Newspapers carried stories about how the protesters were being treated.[4] The stories angered some Americans and subsequently created more support for the suffrage amendment. On November 27 and 28, all the protesters were released, including Alice Paul after spending five weeks in prison. Later, in March 1918, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals declared all the suffrage arrests, trials, and punishments has been unconstitutional.

On January 9, 1918, Wilson announced his support of the women's suffrage amendment. The next day, the House of Representatives narrowly passed the amendment but the Senate refused to even debate it until October. When the Senate voted on the amendment in October, it failed by two votes. And in spite of the ruling by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, arrests of White House protesters resumed on August 6, 1918.

To keep up the pressure, on December 16, 1918, protesters started burning Wilson's words in watch fires in front of the White House. On February 9, 1919, the protesters burned Wilson's image in effigy at the White House.

On another front, the National Woman's Party, led by Paul, urged citizens to vote against anti-suffrage senators up for election in the fall of 1918. After the 1918 election, most members of Congress were pro-suffrage. On May 21, 1919, the House of Representatives passed the amendment, and 2 weeks later on June 4, the Senate finally followed. With their work done in Congress, the protesters turned their attention to getting the states to ratify the amendment.

It was ratified on August 18, 1920, upon its ratification by Tennessee, the thirty-sixth state to do so by the single vote of a legislator who had opposed the amendment but changed the position after his mother sent him a telegram saying "Dear Son, Hurrah! and vote for suffrage. Don't forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt [Carrie Chapman Catt] put the 'rat' in ratification."[5][6]

Popular culture[edit]

The Silent Sentinels vigil was a key part of the 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels which portrayed the history of the National Woman's Party, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and other members of the Women's Voting Rights Movement.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Wilson, Woodrow. Address to Joint Session of Congress. Congress. Washington D.C.. 2 April 1917.
  2. ^ "HOUSE MOVES FOR WOMAN SUFFRAGE; Adopts by 181 to 107 Rule to Create a Committee to Deal with the Subject. DEBATE A HEATED ONE Annoyance of President by Pickets at White House Denounced as "Outlawry."". The New York Times. September 25, 1917. 
  3. ^ Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom, New York: Liveright Publishing, 1920. Project Gutenberg text
  4. ^ Move Militants from Workhouse. (1917, November 25). The New York Times, p. 6.
  5. ^ Kunin, Madeleine (2008). Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead. Chelsea Green. p. 63. ISBN 978-1-933392-92-9. 
  6. ^ Grunwald, Lisa; Stephen J. Adler (2005). Women's letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the present. Dial. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-385-33553-9. 

External links[edit]