The Silent Sentinels
With a new Presidential campaign season starting up, and folks tossing hats in the ring left and right, it seemed timely to examine a woman’s right to vote. Many of my novels contain feminists, some well known such as Amelia Bloomer, some more obscure, like Frances Wright. In the course of my journeys, I came across a group of women activists I ‘d never heard of before–The Silent Sentinels. This group was organized by Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party in the 1900s. This group of ladies donned sashes of purple, gold and and white–the colors of the National Women’s–and protested six days a week in front of the White House from January 1917 until June 1919. They protested silently, using banners to get their message out. Yet despite their silence, they were harassed, mistreated and arrested.
What these women wanted was equality, which began with the right to vote. At first, President Wilson was amused at their efforts. He acknowledged them and invited them in for tea. But they would not be swayed from their mission. Some of the ringleaders were arrested for obstructing traffic and sent to the Occoquon Workhouse for several days at a time. They refused to be pardoned, claiming they had done nothing wrong. Eventually, the House of Representatives formed a committee to deal with women’s suffrage issues. Some members of the House resisted the formation of a committee, claiming they were catering to the “nagging of iron-jawed angels.”
The protests continued, and and Workhouse filled regularly with protesters. The guards were given permission to mistreat the women, and regular beatings occurred. In 1918, the US Court of Appeals declared these prison stays to be unconstitutional. President Wilson finally declared his support of the women’s suffrage amendment in January, 1918. The House of Representatives passed the amendment quickly thereafter, but Senate refused to discuss it until October of that year. The vote in the Senate failed by two votes, and the Silent Sentinels were back in front of the White House.
The 1918 elections added many pro-suffrage members of Congress. In May and June, 1919, Congress and the Senate both passed the amendment, which then had to be ratified by each state. It was finally ratified in August, 1920.
For two long years, six days a week, the Silent Sentinels were a constant presence in Washington, DC. These women were treated harshly, jailed, beaten and abused because they thought women should be treated the same as men, and have the right to vote for the men and women who would rule the country. They left behind their husbands and children in order to protest for a better, more fair, way of life. It took two years for their message to be heard. The least we can do is go to the polls and cast our votes–if not for ourselves, for the memory of the brave Silent Sentinels.