“The Silent Sentinels”: The Fight for the American Women’s Vote

“The Silent Sentinels”: The Fight for the American Women’s Vote

In 1916, a group of women, called “The Silent Sentinels”, barricaded themselves at the gates of the White House.

They were determined not to leave the site until the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson at that time, accepted their demands. They protested in front of the White House during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, starting on January 10 of 1917. At first, they were tolerated, but later they were arrested on charges of obstructing traffic.

The history today is about this women’s suffrage group, organized by Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party, who achieved its goal: The American women’s vote, an achievement that was not quick or easy to achieve. On the way, there were years of struggle, violence, and a lot of effort so that the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified and women’s suffrage was finally legal.

But what was the background of all this? Well, the name “Silent Sentinels” was given to the women due to their silent protest. Throughout the two-and-a-half-year vigil, many of the nearly 2,000 women who were part of the picket lines were harassed, arrested, and treated unfairly by local and US authorities, including torture and abuse inflicted on them.

The Silent Sentinels protests were organized by the National Woman’s Party (NWP), a militant women’s suffrage organization. This organization was first founded as the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CUWS) in 1913 by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns The CUWS by definition was an organization that took a militant approach to women’s suffrage and broke away from the more moderate NAWSA, lasting only three years until its founders merged it with the Woman’s Party to form the National Woman’s Party. NWP members are primarily known for picketing the White House and going on hunger strikes while in jail or on the job.

However, “The Suffragette” was the weekly newsletter of the National Woman’s Party, and as such acted as a voice for the Silent Watchers throughout their vigil. It covered the progress of the Sentinels and included interviews with protesters, reports on President Woodrow Wilson’s (non-)reaction, and political essays. While the Sentinels were in prison, some members wrote about their experiences which were later published there.

Now, who is this Alice Paul? Alice Paul was born on January 11th of 1885. She grew up in a society that believed in the equality of men and women, an idea that Alice would never forget. After spending her childhood on the family farm in Paulsdale, she began her studies at the Moorestown Friends School, proving to be an accomplished student. After graduating, she received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Swarthmore College in 1905. The following year she was living on the Lower East Side participating in a fellowship as a social worker at the College Settlement House; from this moment on, she ventured into the world of social injustices in which the most disadvantaged lived, being an active part of them. Later, in 1907 she obtained a degree in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania and went to England to continue her studies.

Alice settled in Birmingham and enrolled at the Woodbroke Quaker Study Center while earning a living as a social worker. One day, Alice attended a speech by suffragist Christabel Pankhurst at Birmingham University. Convinced at the time of the important work that English suffragettes were doing, she joined the Women Social and Political Union (WSPU), in which Alice joined. She was actively involved in the Union’s activities and was arrested on several occasions, also undergoing hunger strikes, as a form of protest.

Returning to the United States in 1910, Alice Paul, enthusiastic about the suffrage movement, decided to continue her work. Aided by Lucy Burns, whom she had met at one of her imprisonments in England, she began her advocacy for women’s suffrage in America. Alice and Lucy focused on this lawsuit, which would end up materializing in the defense of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which stipulated the right to vote for all citizens, regardless of gender.

Alice Paul had achieved her goal. Thereafter, she continued to work for women’s rights in the United States, the League of Nations, and the United Nations. She dedicated her whole life to the fight for equal rights for men and women, which ended in 1977.

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