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National Woman’s Party led first-ever White House protests

Protests are a civil right protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They have been used to draw attention to critical issues, events and injustices and have been part of our nation’s history since before the American Revolution.
Nearly every political and social movement has used protests as a way to make their voices heard, from the Boston Tea Party in 1773 to the current protests of the Black Lives Matter movement. Protests, such as those during the civil rights and the women’s suffrage movements, were instrumental in changing laws and shaping our politics.
 The women’s suffrage movement formally began in July of 1848 in Seneca Falls, N.Y. Over the 70+ years of fighting for the right to vote, suffragists employed many tactics to make their voices heard, including petitioning legislatures, marching in parades and protesting.
Beginning in January 1917, members of the National Woman’s Party, a women’s suffrage organization led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, began a two-and-a-half-years-long protest for women’s voting rights. At the time, Woodrow Wilson had just started his second term as president and the National Woman’s Party was frustrated with his lack of support for a federal suffrage amendment.
So they decided to protest in front of the White House. They were the first-ever White House protesters and were called the “silent sentinels” because instead of shouting out their demands they wrote them on cloth banners and stood silently outside the White House.
They picketed in front of the White House gates so that Wilson would see them on his way in and out of the White House. They picketed six days a week, every week, in all weather.
When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, many considered the women protesters disloyal and unpatriotic. Crowds taunted and threatened them and destroyed their banners. The women were arrested for “causing a crowd to gather and thus obstruction of traffic.”
They served jail time rather than pay what they considered unjust fines for exercising their constitutional rights. They persisted and continued to protest.
As the picketing continued, the jail sentences increased from a few days in the local district jail to several months in the Occoquan Work House, a prison in Virginia that had been previously closed because it was deemed uninhabitable. In prison, the women were mistreated and assaulted, fed worm infested food, denied regular access to soap, toilet paper and toothbrushes and sometimes provided with just a bucket to use as a toilet.
The women, many of whom came from prominent and politically connected families, demanded to be treated as political prisoners. They went on hunger strikes to protest their conditions.
The jail officials responded by violently force-feeding them raw eggs and cold milk through a tube inserted in to their stomachs. The publicity about the abuse forced President Wilson to order their release.
After 18 months of picketing, Wilson finally announced his support for woman suffrage in September 1918. But, he was unable to deliver the two Senate votes needed to pass the 19th Amendment. So the National Woman’s Party engaged in a new tactic beginning in January of 1919. They held demonstrations in Lafayette Park just outside the White House –the same location as the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
The women set fire to copies of President Wilson’s speeches, burned a paper effigy of him, and ceremoniously burned wood from Revolutionary-era sites. These protests were called “Watchfires of Freedom” and led to more arrests and counter demonstrations. Over the two and a half years of protests, more than 500 women were arrested and some 200 were jailed. They came from all over the United States including Pennsylvania.
Finally, on May 21, 1919, just two days after the 66th Congress convened, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the suffrage bill. Two weeks later, on June 4, 1919, the Senate followed suit. And on Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment was signed in to law.
The silent sentinels and the hundreds of thousands of women of the suffrage movement won the battle for the right to vote with courage and sacrifice and the power of their voice. Their bravery and perseverance were nothing short of extraordinary.

Sandra Kerr
League of Women Voters of Bucks County

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