Monday, July 27, 2009

Jailed for Freedom: Silent Sentinels

Alice Paul grew up in a Quaker and was likely influenced by the early Quaker suffragists including Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott. But it was during her years in England that she learned tactics to draw attention to the Votes for Women cause. At the time, British suffragists had become a militant movement. They organized mass demonstrations, threw rocks at windows, and participated in hunger strikes. Paul took all of this in and took part in these events. In 1912 Paul moved back to the United States, where she was appointed to the position of Chairmen of the Congressional Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Prior to this time the suffrage movement had been largely based in New York meeting halls, but Paul was a supporter of “Deeds not Words.” The time had come to get Women’s Rights back on the national agenda. To accomplish that she needed to move to Washington.

In 1913, the women of NAWSA organized a mass parade down Pennsylvania Avenue which coincided with Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. The parade was led by Inez Milholland, a suffragist and labor attorney, dressed a Grecian goddess astride a white horse. It was a grand scene that stole the show from Wilson. Though the parade garnered front page media attention put the movement on the national scene, Paul left the organization to form the National Women’s Party(NWP). While NAWSA was focused on achieving suffrage on a state level, NWP believe change could only come with a constitutional amendment. Paul and her supporters engaged in a series of pickets at the White House, with signs (like the one above, left) calling the president “Kaiser Wilson” among other things. The picketers known as “Silent Sentinels” were frequently arrested and charged with “obstructing traffic.” Sentences varied from 60 days, with Paul herself receiving 7 months in the Occoquan Workhouse.

At the Occoquan Workhouse in Fairfax County, Virginia the detained women engaged in hunger strikes. The strikes led to their mistreatment and in to being force fed three times a day for three weeks. Insubordinate women were beaten by the guards; Lucy Burns, a fellow suffragist and friend of Alice Paul’s, was handcuffed to her bed with her arms above her head for a whole night. Public outrage at the prison conditions and at the treatment of the women grew. It is one thing if poor and impoverished women are imprisoned, but many of the suffragists were educated upper middle-class ladies, who (in some opinions) may have been out of their senses, did not deserve harsh treatment. Across the country women took part in the strike as a show of solidarity. In January 1918, President Wilson finally declared his support for the Right to Vote Amendment. With public support growing, the NWP (with new headquarters at 14 Jackson Place) continued its parades, pickets, and took to starting fires around Washington, DC. Frequently, the women were attacked by suffrage opponents, as well as the police. However, the tide was turning. In August 1920, Tennessee became the 36th and final state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment.

Things quieted after that. The NWP took up residency at the “Old Brick Capitol.” From their they drafted the “Equal Rights Amendment Bill,” which to this day has yet to be ratified. Known as the Sewall-Belmont house (front door at seen right), Alice Paul contintued to live and work there. The house became famous for its tea parties. The house now serves as a museum dedicated to the suffrage movement, and features artifacts from NWP’s campaign for the passage of the 19th Amendment and NWP’s feminist founder Alice Paul.

Sources: Library of Congress, American Memory: Photographs from the Records of the National Women's Party.
Tour of the Sewall-Belmont House on July 2009,

1 comment:

  1. The schism between NAWSA and the NWP is interesting to me because it occurred due to difference in opinion regarding whether suffrage should be sought on the state level versus the federal level (funding was another and nonprofits *sigh*). NAWSA wanted suffrage to be pushed for state by state on the principal that once enough states allowed full suffrage, that the rest of the nation would have to follow suit. NWP argued that the only way women could get the right to vote and ensure it was protected was through a constitutional amendment. In some ways this debate is going on today with gay marriage; some argue that if you push for enough states to allow it that it will be come the norm and the rest of the country will go along. The political strategy is to fight for it at the state level, which is the reverse of what the NWP believed.