Lessons from the First White House Protests for Women’s Suffrage, 100 Years Ago

Peter Dreier in AlterNet:

WomenMany Americans will traveling to Washington, D.C., next week to protest against Donald Trump on his Inauguration Day. Many will continue to demonstrate outside the White House after he takes office. Today’s activists can learn valuable lessons from the first protest outside the White House that took place 100 years ago, on Jan. 10, 1917. The activists were part of the National Woman’s Party, a group that was fighting for women’s suffrage. It took three more years before women won the right to vote, but the ongoing protests at the White House played a crucial role in that victory. The NWP suffragists, who to Washington from all over the country, called their protest “silent sentinels.” Woodrow Wilson, who had won his second term as president in November 1916, was not an advocate of women’s suffrage. The NWP activists carried purple, white, and gold banners with the words, “Mr. President what will you do for woman suffrage?” and “Mr. President how long must women wait for liberty?” When Wilson traveled to other cities, he was often greeted by NWP members carrying banners with the same message. The NWP was persistent. Its members protested at the White House six days a week, every week, until June 4, 1919, when Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. During this two-and-a-half year long campaign, many of the activists were harassed and arrested, and mistreated while in prison. But their persistence and civil disobedience paid off.

Alice Paul was the leader of the NWP and the silent sentinels. After graduating from Swarthmore, Paul earned a master’s degree in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1907 she moved to England to practice social work among the poor at a Quaker-run settlement house in Birmingham. One day she heard a speech by Christabel Pankhurst, the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the radical wing of England’s feminist movement. Paul was intrigued by the Pankhursts’ motto, “Deeds not words,” which they translated into direct action, including heckling, rock throwing and window smashing, to draw attention to the cause of women’s rights. Not surprisingly, the women were often arrested for such protests, which led to newspaper photos of activists being carried away in handcuffs by the police. Hesitant at first to join their militant crusade, Paul eventually overcame her fears and was arrested and jailed several times. In prison, she and other suffragettes protested their confinement with hunger strikes. Their jailers force-fed them. Paul took solace in a motto that one of her fellow activists carved into the prison wall: “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

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