“When angry, count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred.”
Wilson’s inauguration would not take place until March. The hundreds of women who
appeared at the White House that January were serving notice that they expected better of him in a second term. Theirs were the first organized protests to take place in front of the White House gates. From Monday to Saturday, the women stood silently from 10 AM to 6 PM to the increasing annoyance of the president and ire of the opposition. The Silent Sentinel vigil would last two years and involve more than 2000 suffragists.
One might think that citizen passersby would be struck by the quiet resolve of the
protesters, who walked to and stood outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue regardless of the
weather. Many men and women praised them. And some even delivered hot drinks to sustain
them and warm bricks to stand on. But others jeered, spat, and tried to provoke them.
How dare suffragists use these “circus stunts” to embarrass President Wilson! Such
demonstrations invited danger. They were a “menace to the life of the president and silent
invitation to the assassin,” raged one opponent. “Silent, silly and offensive,” pronounced the New York Times. When foreign leaders arrived at the White House, the first thing they saw were hundreds of silent women, asserting with their placards that “AMERICA IS NOT A
DEMOCRACY. TWENTY MILLION WOMEN ARE DENIED THE RIGHT TO VOTE.” Did
these women not realize how blessed they were to live in this land?
In April of 1917 the United States entered World War I on the side of the Allies to defeat
German Kaiser Wilhelm’s forces and in Wilson’s words “make the world for democracy.”
Surely now that the nation was at war, the women would cease their protests and unite behind the Commander in Chief. But they remained. In silent vigil. With signs now proclaiming
“KAISER WILSON…20,000,000 AMERICAN WOMEN ARE NOT SELF-GOVERNED.”
Public tempers flared and enraged bystanders now descended on the women. Throwing rotten
fruit, shoving them, tearing the signs away from them, ripping banners to shreds and shouting. How dare they publicly embarrass the President? And why weren’t they doing their part for the war effort?
Police descended to break up the scuffle and no arrests were made in these early Spring
protests, but the public sided with the male antagonists. If those had been male protestors, many in the press argued, they would have been carted off to jail for provoking a riot. After that police resolved to arrest. But still the women continued their silent daily walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House gates, each day with new signs to replace those torn by the mob.
Between late June and December the Silent Sentinels were frequently arrested, often on
trumped up charges. For example, blocking traffic because of the inflammatory (traffic-stopping) sign quoting Wilson’s second inaugural: WE SHALL FIGHT FOR THE THINGS WHICH WE HAVE ALWAYS CARRIED NEAREST TO OUR HEARTS – FOR DEMOCRACY, FOR THE RIGHT OF THOSE WHO SUBMIT TO AUTHORITY TO HAVE A VOICE IN THE GOVERNMENT or Alice Paul, also quoting Wilson: THE TIME HAS COME TO CONQUER OR SUBMIT, FOR US THERE CAN BE BUT ONE CHOICE. WE HAVE MADE IT.”
Carted off to jail in silence and good order, the women often met with sympathetic judges who offered them a modest fine instead of jail time. They chose jail. And for this they were at times brutalized. Alice Paul was sentenced to solitary confinement and bread and water. When she and other female prisoners went on a hunger strike, they were force-fed as doctors shoved tubes down their throats and pumped in raw eggs diluted with milk. On the “Night of Terror” (November 14, 1917) at one facility authorities gave guards permission to break the prisoners. Lucy Burns was beaten and chained to her cell bars with her hands above her head overnight. Dorothy Day was slammed repeatedly against an iron bench. Dora Lewis had her head smashed against an iron bed. (All survived.) When their mistreatment was discovered and authorities prosecuted (for cruel and unusual punishment) the women were all released and public outcry was strong. In December President Wilson decided to support the nineteenth amendment.
And throughout the ordeal, at the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, hundreds of women stood in silent protest. What does it take to remain silent and not return jeers in the face of scorn, abuse, and injustice? What does it take to not return anger with anger? Jesus knew. Ghandi knew. Martin Luther King Jr. knew. But before Ghandi and before Martin Luther King Jr. and very much inspired by Jesus, the Silent Sentinels knew. The answer is self-control.
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