One hundred and two years ago, today, a group of women, organized by Women’s Rights Activist Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party (NWP), began a picketing and protest campaign in front of the White House during the Wilson Presidency. Known as the Silent Sentinels, the protest began after a meeting with the President regarding suffrage proved fruitless with Wilson stating to the women to “…concert public opinion on behalf of women’s suffrage.” The silent protest was a new strategy for the National Suffrage Movement and served as a constant reminder of Wilson’s lack of support.
Originally founded as the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CUWS) after the 1913 woman suffrage parade, they broke away from the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), a more moderate group. CUWS only lasted three years and morphed into the NWP. The Suffragist was their weekly newsletter, containing essays, progress reports and notes on the President’s continuing indifference.
There were differing public reactions. Some approved, assisting with holding banners, bringing beverages and donating money. Some opposed their actions, including the leader of the NAWSA, Carrie Chapman Catt, whom preferred political tactics via individual states instead of a national amendment. She feared a male voter backlash.
Anti-suffragist mobs could be violent (worsening after the US entered World War I) spurred by the more insulting banners that compared Wilson to Kaiser Wilhelm. The New York Times called the protests “…silly, silent and offensive.” Massachusetts Representative Joseph Walsh referred to them as “…bewildered, deluded creatures with short skirts and short hair…” and “…nagging, iron-jawed angels.”
They were harassed, arrested, tortured and abused. Hunger strikes were met with forced feeding. On the night of November 14, 1917, known as the “Night of Terror“, the superintendent of the Occoquan Workhouse (prison), W.H. Whittaker, ordered the nearly forty guards to brutalize the suffragists. The treatment stories angered many Americans, creating more support. The protesters were finally released November 27 & 28, 1917, Alice Paul having spent five weeks there.
President Wilson finally announced his amendment support on January 8, 1918. The House barely passed the amendment the next day but, the Senate waited until October to vote. It failed by two votes. Protester arrests resumed August 6, 1918 and, by December, protestors were starting fires and burning Wilson effigies in front of the White House. Alice Paul encouraged people to vote against anti-suffrage Senators during the 1918 elections. The House, again, passed the amendment on May 21, 1919 and the Senate followed June 4 ending the six-day-a-week protest. The Nineteenth Amendment was adopted August 18, 1920.
See Iron Jawed Angels film.