women standing in front of the white house holding banners

Arrested and tortured, the Silent Sentinels suffered for suffrage

Standing steadfast outside the White House, American suffragists protested their lack of liberty despite the threats of mobs, jail time, and violence.

Holding banners of purple, gold, and white, suffragists stood in front of the White House to attack President Woodrow Wilson’s refusal to back the Susan B. Anthony amendment.

American women had been fighting for the vote for nearly 70 years when Woodrow Wilson won the presidential election in November 1916. It would be Wilson’s second term, and suffragists were disappointed. Wilson first took office in 1913, and one day prior to his Inauguration, they had staged a huge woman suffrage parade of more than 5,000 people marching up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.

Almost four years had passed, and U.S. women still did not have the vote. Wilson’s reelection felt like a major setback, but the suffragists, led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, decided to turn their grief into action. They met on January 9, 1917, at the new headquarters of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, Cameron House, located just steps from the White House. There they would hear a plan, by Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Blatch told them: “We have got to bring to the President, day by day, week in, week out, the idea that great numbers of women want to be free, will be free, and want to know what he is going to do about it. We need to have a silent vigil in front of the White House until his inauguration in March.”

They listened as Blatch offered a new form of protest. In America pickets had become a common union tactic, and Blatch had used pickets in her Votes for Women campaign with the New York Legislature in 1912, so when she delivered her final plea to the women of Cameron House, they stirred. “Will you not,” she asked, “be a ‘silent sentinel’ of liberty and self-government?”

The first vigils

On January 10, 1917, a dozen or so suffragists bundled themselves into wool coats, hats, and gloves and draped purple, white, and gold sashes across their chests. As they braced for the bitter January chill, they were fortified with Paul’s advice: Don’t be provoked into a physical or verbal confrontation, don’t make eye contact with angry bystanders, stay quiet, and keep your backs to the gate for safety and to make sure the public can read the signs.

The group marched to the White House in single file while Paul stayed behind to manage the protest from headquarters. They arrived outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and took their positions, standing silently and holding their signs, which begged for answers to tired questions: “MR. PRESIDENT, WHAT WILL YOU DO FOR WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE?” and “HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?” (For Black women, the fight to vote would continue even after the 19th Amendment.)

The sentinels had been in position for only 40 minutes when Woodrow Wilson’s car returned to the White House. Smiling broadly but ignoring them, he zipped through the gates. Nonetheless, the president must have been shocked; never before in the history of America had anything like this happened in front of the White House.

Officials were unsure how to handle the situation. Major Raymond W. Pullman, the super-intendent of police, knew the suffragists did not need a permit if they were not advertising anything and that, as of now, there was no violation of the law. The sentinels stood there, peacefully, until early afternoon and would stay until dark. Back at headquarters, Paul informed the press that the pickets would continue this silent protest from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except for Sundays until the president’s Inauguration. But, she said, the protest was designed to continue until the Susan B. Anthony amendment passed.

The news of this ongoing protest had an immediate effect, overwhelmingly negative, even among suffragists. Carrie Chapman Catt told the Washington Times, “I think the Congressional Union is beginning at the wrong end when it seeks to embarrass the President.” The National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage called the picketing “a menace to the life of the president—a silent invitation to the assassin,” and said “it is impossible to follow the mental processes of the women who devised the picket idea. As an argument it ranks with the small boy’s thrusting out his tongue. As a demonstration of fitness for the vote it is idiotic.”

Even close allies were upset by the brazenness of it all. Paul’s own mother, familiar with her daughter’s single-minded focus and stubbornness, wanted her to call it off. One organizer told Paul to “use your own splendid talents for something besides circus tricks!” Even as a slew of women quit the Congressional Union, Paul refused to adapt or apologize; she was unremitting, responding to her critics with copies of The Suffragist, so they could “learn what we are attempting to do.”

Well beyond that first day, the Silent Sentinels persevered. If it was raining, sleeting, or snowing, the protesters adhered to a rotation of two-hour shifts. Their commitment amplified their notoriety while softening the opposition. Even the most hardened anti-suffrage forces felt sorry for these shivering, dripping women. One congressman told a picket that there was “something religious” about the Silent Sentinels. “To me,” he said, “it has already become a part of the modern religion of this country.” For the Inauguration, the rainy weather in early March matched Wilson’s mood as he left the White House for his swearing-in at the Capitol. Nearly a thousand suffragists with raincoats and boots assembled into formation behind a banner bearing these words: “MR. PRESIDENT, HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?” Behind it, an American flag waved to show that those protesting during the president’s Inauguration were patriots, too. (Black men and women were fundamental to the suffrage movement, arguing, "We are all bound up together.")

The rest of the line, making its way to surround 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Wilson’s first official day of his second term—was organized alphabetically with each state represented. As they made their way toward the White House, 5,000 people, most of them Inaugural visitors and many lured by posters advertising the protest, cheered them. The protesters circled the White House four times, each lap representing a year that they had pressed for a federal amendment.

Declarations of war

The suffragists’ rapport with the police and the public had grown in the nearly three months of picketing. Having made it through the harshest season, their colorful presence was as welcome as the matching spring landscape. This cordial relationship would change in April 1917 after the United States entered World War I. Many assumed the protesters would do their patriotic duty and hang up their sashes in deference to the war, spending their volunteer time working for the war effort. (Wilson asks Americans to "Do their bit" in National Geographic's April 1917 magazine.)

The idea of women being pressed into service, even if it was as a volunteer and carrying other burdens of war, did generate sympathy for suffrage. Within weeks, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Nebraska granted equal voting rights to women. This war, one that Wilson had framed around the intangible ideals of democracy, encouraged Americans to be accountable to these principles as well. If young men were willing to die for liberty on the other side of the ocean, the least Americans could do was grant all of their citizens suffrage.

Things took a turn after a Russian delegation’s visit to the White House in June 1917. Lucy Burns and other suffragettes assembled in front of the White House shortly before the meeting with the Russians. They unfurled a 10-foot, hand-stenciled cloth sign, stretched between two wooden posts, addressed to the Russian envoys, telling them that “America is not a democracy. Twenty million American Women are denied the right to vote.” To attack the president so directly in front of diplomatic guests was an unprecedented outrage. The situation quickly grew tense.

“Take down that banner or I’m through with woman suffrage for life,” one man screamed at Burns. “You are a friend to the enemy, and a disgrace to your country,” one woman sneered at the protesters. Men in the crowd ignored police directions to disperse, and destroyed the sign, pushed Burns, and left the women stunned but standing. From across the street, suffragists watched in horror as the men closed around their colleagues. All they could see was the top of the poles and people in straw hats surging this way and then that way. They held their breath as the guards approached to break up the scene. Despite the scuffle, there would be no arrests that day.

Americans were outraged that the women were not hauled off to jail. They told the press and wrote letters to Wilson declaiming what they thought was a double standard: If the pickets had been men, they would have been cuffed for provoking a riot. D.C. police superintendent Pullman conferred with the president and his administration. Going forward, Pullman agreed to find some excuse, however flimsy, to arrest the suffragists “if the thing was attempted again.”

The threat of arrests did not scare Paul. She told the press that she planned to repeat the Russian protest the next day. “We have ordered another banner with the same wording and we intend to show it in the same place,” she said. Sure enough, within 24 hours, the Silent Sentinels were back at their posts.

Behind bars

Planning her next steps, Alice Paul publicly committed to continue despite outbreaks of violence. On June 21, 1917, Lucy Burns and Katharine Morey carried a banner to the White House gate, but a group of boys grabbed their sign and tore it apart. The police did nothing. More sentinels emerged with banners, and the conflict escalated. Police called for backup and did their best to prevent a riot from breaking out.

Inside the White House, the administration wanted to end the protests without giving the women more publicity. They tried to negotiate with Paul, but she was unmoved. The protests would continue. Superintendent Pullman knew he had no choice: He told Paul, “If anybody goes out again on the picket line, it will be our duty to arrest them.”

On June 22 outside the White House, three suffragists held up a sign containing Wilson’s own words from his war message to Congress on April 2: “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 GOVERNMENT.”

The officers arrested the women, who were charged with blocking traffic and unlawful assemblage. Rather than send the women to prison and risk turning them into martyrs, Pullman released them on personal recognizance. Despite the arrests, Paul announced that they would never stop picketing and more arrests followed. (The 1918 Spanish flu nearly derailed the women's suffrage movement.)

Following a series of protests in early July. Judge Alexander Mullowney decided to switch tactics: “I hate to do it, but under the law there is nothing else for me to do. I can fine you $25 but that’s nothing. I know it’s not going to make you quit marching in front of the White House.” He offered fines or a three-day sentence in jail. The sentinels chose jail, and the protests continued.

Sixteen more women were later arrested for protesting and booked for “unlawful assembly.” The defendants included Alison Hopkins, whose husband, John, had helped finance Wilson’s campaign. On Monday, Judge Mullowney issued a new ruling: “Sixty days in the [Occoquan] Workhouse in default of a $25 fine,” the judge said. Again, the women chose jail.

The sentinels’ sentence would be served in a Virginia workhouse an hour away from Washington, D.C. Harsh living conditions, inedible food, and limited contact with the outside world awaited them there. After John Hopkins visited his wife Alice at the workhouse, he grew angry and confronted the president.

Hopkins had worked with Woodrow Wilson for years, joined in the common cause of progressive politics. The two were now at loggerheads. “In view of the seriousness of the present situation,” Hopkins said, “the only solution lay in the immediate passage of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.” He told the president there were enough votes in both chambers for it to pass. Wilson, turning defensive, said he would take his own poll to find out if that was true.

Hopkins was not the only one objecting to the suffragists’ prison term. Telegrams poured into the White House as well as the National Woman’s Party (the successor to the Congressional Union) headquarters from those upset by the harsh punishment these women had received. Wilson struggled over what to do and decided a pardon was the best course of action. When the sentinels at Occoquan learned of the pardon, they refused to accept it. They had committed no crime, so there was no reason for a pardon.

Their attorney, Dudley Field Malone (who had resigned from Wilson’s administration for its failure to support woman suffrage), explained that while they could not be forced to accept the pardon, the attorney general would kick them out of the workhouse anyway and the public would interpret the outcome as if they had taken the president’s offer. That’s exactly what happened.

After the women’s release, the press was eager for a statement. John Hopkins put his conversation with the president on the public record, saying Wilson predicted Congress would pass the Susan B. Anthony amendment in the current session if they had the chance to vote on it. Paul told reporters that the picketing would continue as “picketing has accomplished just exactly what we wanted it to accomplish, and picketing is going to end in forcing the issue.”

Days and nights of terror

The Silent Sentinels continued protesting into August, creating more and more inflammatory signs. As the protests continued, the women were struck, knocked down, and dragged by rioters. Similar scenes played out day after day with more pickets, more attacks, and finally, more arrests. On August 17, six women were sentenced to month-long confinements at the workhouse.

Events throughout September led to a new intensity in the campaign. By the end of September, two dozen suffragists were confined to Occoquan Workhouse. Alice Paul was frank with potential protesters: Be prepared to go to prison for up to six months. On October 20, 1917, Paul herself was arrested with several others in front of the White House and later sentenced to seven months in the district jail. As Paul was led out of the courtroom, she told reporters: “I am being imprisoned . . . because I pointed out to President Wilson the fact that he was obstructing the cause of democracy and justice at home, while Americans fight for it abroad.” She said she expected to be treated a sa political prisoner. (Not just the United States: Women around the world have had to fight to vote.)

In early November Paul began a hunger strike. Three days in, prison physicians examined Paul and tried to change her mind, but she remained steadfast. The doctors decided to force-feed her. Paul was taken to the psychiatric ward and strapped down. A tube was stuck up her nose and milk and raw eggs were funneled down her throat. The ghastly ritual occurred three times that day.

Although news reports said Paul took the nourishment without protest, she smuggled out her own account. On November 10, 41 women protested her treatment outside the White House; 31 were arrested, including Lucy Burns, who had been released from prison only a few days before. The pickets were sentenced to varying terms at Occoquan Workhouse; Burns received the harshest penalty: six months.

Malone, with so many legal issues swirling, made Paul his top priority. He was granted a court order to see her. When he arrived, he barked at the staff to take her out of the psychiatric ward. Paul, faint and feeble, was carried on a stretcher to the hospital section. There, the forced feedings continued for the next two weeks.

The pickets most recently arrested, including Burns, arrived at Occoquan on November 15. The suffragists demanded to be treated as political prisoners but were seized and tossed into a cell. One, 55-year-old Dora Lewis, hit her head on the wall and crumpled to the floor, motionless. Lewis regained consciousness. Burns, described as “worth her weight in wild cats,” fought two guards the whole way to the cell.

When Burns began calling the roll to see if everyone was okay, the guards ordered silence and threatened to put them in straitjackets. Burns continued to speak, so they handcuffed her wrists above her head to the cell door and threatened to put a gag buckle over her mouth. Cellmate Alice Cosu had a heart attack and vomited throughout the night. Another woman from their group was locked up with the male prisoners, who were told that they could do whatever they wanted with her. The next day, 16 of these women went on a hunger strike. The superintendent, targeting the ringleaders, ordered the force-feeding of Burns and Lewis first.

Matthew O’Brien, a lawyer working with Malone, got a court order allowing him into the workhouse to check on his clients. There he found Burns in her dark cell, wrapped in a blanket as her clothes had been violently stripped from her. It was all he needed to argue that the suffragists were being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. At a hearing a week later in U.S. district court, with Burns and Lewis in the room but too weak to testify, Judge Edmund Waddill ordered all suffragists transferred from Occoquan to the district jail, where Paul had been moved.

Wilson’s political reputation was taking a big hit, according to the torrent of letters and telegrams flowing toward the White House. Some writers made plain to Wilson that Democrats would lose the next election over the maltreatment issue. A week after the Waddill hearing, all the women were granted release. By November 28, Paul, Burns, and 20 other protesters were freed. Now it was Wilson who was handcuffed in a difficult position.

On January 9, 1918, Woodrow Wilson announced his support for the Susan B. Anthony amendment as the House stood poised to vote on it. Wilson said that his personal position had not changed—leaving the states to decide would be the “proper and orderly way of dealing with the question.” But, he said, America, and the world, had changed. There was growing public sentiment in favor of votes for women, and the nation’s stature as a beacon of democracy had grown.

When they heard the news, the suffragists were elated. Paul, mostly recovered from her last hunger strike, was also upbeat. In a statement to the press, she said, “It is difficult to express our gratification at the President’s stand. For four years we have striven to secure his support for the national amendment, for we knew that this, and perhaps it alone, would ensure us success.” (Now nearly a century old, will the Equal Rights Amendment ever be ratified?)

The Susan B. Anthony amendment would not pass in Congress until 1919. Suffragists would spend much of the following year focusing their efforts on ratification in the states. The determination and persistence of the Silent Sentinels turned President Wilson from foe to ally, and would bring the final push for woman suffrage across the finish line in August 1920, when the 19th Amendment became the law of the land in the United States.

Journalist Tina Cassidy writes about women and culture and is the author of Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born; and Jackie After O.

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