Radical Protests Propelled the Suffrage Movement. Here’s How a New Museum Captures That HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: museums, suffrage, women history
The first of the “silent sentinel” protests occurred on January 10, 1917. Twelve women, fighting for their right to vote, stood peacefully before the White House with picket signs all day, and every day after that, even as the nation entered the Great War in April. Though other suffragists voiced concern that the protest criticizing President Woodrow Wilson could stain the entire movement as unpatriotic, that did not deter the most resolute picketers.
On June 22, days after the protesters’ presence embarrassed the President in front of Russian dignitaries, the D.C. police arrested suffragist Lucy Burns and her compatriots. A veteran of militant suffragette campaigns in England, Burns had, along with fellow activist Alice Paul, been imprisoned in the United Kingdom, staging hunger strikes and enduring forced feedings in jail; they understood the benefits of being in the national news and staging flashy protests. As part of this new political strategy, they formed their own radical organization, the National Women’s Party, and geared their efforts around headline-grabbing demonstrations.
Burns and the other women were brought to a D.C. jail, then released immediately because local law enforcement could not figure out what to charge them with, or even what to do with the women. As historian and journalist Tina Cassidy explains in Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait? Alice Paul, Woodrow Wilson, and the Fight for the Right to Vote, the D.C. authorities were in a difficult position. “One the one hand, the authorities were trying to stop the pickets,” she writes. “On the other, they knew if the women were charged and—worse—sent to prison, they would be instant martyrs.” The police eventually decided the protesters had illegally obstructed traffic.
It soon became routine; suffragists would walk with banners to the White House, get arrested, stay in jail briefly when they refused to pay their small fines, then be released. Crowds, anticipating the daily spectacle, gathered to watch. As suffragist Doris Stevens recalled in her suffrage memoir Jailed for Freedom, “Some members of the crowd…hurled cheap and childish epithets at them. Small boys were allowed to capture souvenirs, shreds of the banners torn from non-resistant women, as trophies of the sport.”
The timbre of the suffrage story changed on July 14, Bastille Day, after a month of the charade. This time, a heated trial ensued, with the women serving as their own attorneys. A D.C. judge sentenced 16 suffragists to 60 days in the Occoquan Workhouse, a “progressive rehabilitation” facility for low-level offenders that was part of the sprawling Lorton Reformatory 20 miles south from D.C. in Fairfax County, Virginia. One of the jailed suffragists, Alison Turnbull Hopkins, was married to a friend of President Wilson, John Hopkins, who immediately went to the White House. Two days later, Wilson pardoned the “pickets” (although they refused to formally accept the gesture), and the women walked free.
The women’s sentencing to Occoquan marked a shift in the government’s response to the protest, one which would ultimately lead to what some historians regard as the turning point in the movement towards suffrage. A new museum devoted to telling this story provides a much fuller picture of what happened when women protested for their rights.