From shortly after the Mexican War until the start of World War I, American women argued for the right to vote. Speeches rang out. Conventions convened. And half of all American adults still could not vote. Then on a snowy January morning in 1917, a dozen women dressed in white walked to the gates of the White House. All day they stood. And the next day, and the next. . . In the drifting snow, only their banners spoke.
MR. PRESIDENT, WHAT WILL YOU DO FOR WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE?
MR. PRESIDENT, HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?
Today the White House gates are a soapbox of daily protest, but until the "Silent Sentinels" stood their ground, no one had ever picketed the president's home. But then, the suffragists' 70-year struggle had only recently included parades with floats, hundreds of women in bonnets, and one on a white horse. No suffragists had driven coast-to-coast caravans, sent birthday cakes to Congressmen, or lobbied with the strategic genius of the Founding Fathers. These tactics, scorned by some women, were the inspiration of one.
Susan B. Anthony had her coin. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, likewise, is in the history books. But until recently, few Americans had heard of Alice Paul. Shy, reclusive, penning no memoir, Alice Paul had, one admirer noted, "the quiet of the spinning top." Yet almost single-handedly, she revived the stagnant suffrage movement and drove it to the ballot box.
Paul's path to suffrage ran from her Quaker childhood in New Jersey through college and work in a New York settlement house. "My main impression of poverty work was the hopelessness of it all," she said. "It seemed we were always burying children." A scholarship to study in England changed her life, and American politics.
By 1907, British suffragists were not giving speeches; they were breaking windows, setting fires, waging hunger strikes. Paul disapproved of the violence but as a Quaker who read Thoreau, she was drawn to civil disobedience. Arrested in 1909, she waged her first hunger strike. Months later, when she returned to America, the suffragist movement suddenly had, depending on one's politics, its Lincoln or its Lenin.
Spinning a new National Woman's Party out of conservative suffragist groups, Paul plotted high profile actions. A DC parade shortly after Woodrow Wilson's inauguration drew a half million onlookers. Follow-up parades around the nation kept the limelight. Paul garnered backing from Theodore Roosevelt and Louis Brandeis. But her bullseye was Congress, and there she soon disproved the stuffed-shirt notion that women were unfit for politics.
NWP lobbyists kept a card catalog with details about every Congressman. Meeting patriarchal politicians, Paul's lobbyists quoted their speeches, mentioned wives and daughters who might disagree, and penned Valentine rhymes based on their voting records. Any Congressman who said the folks back home were against suffrage soon saw a NWP rally -- back home. The NWP dogged President Wilson, unfolding banners wherever he spoke, shouting as he passed, meeting him in the Oval Office. When nothing changed the president's mind, the Silent Sentinels planted themselves outside his house. And when the embarassed president invited them in out of the cold, they declined.
On through the winter, they stood and stood. The stodgy New York Times called them "silent, silly, and offensive." Men hurled insults or rotten fruit. A banner reading "Kaiser Wilson" was torn down. Then in June, DC officials wrote to Paul, "We have to say to you, if you do persist, that we have no alternative except to arrest you." Nevertheless, she persisted.
What followed was, until recently, too ugly for the history books. Arrests. Jail. Hunger strikes. Force feeding with tubes pumping gruel through the nose. A "Night of Terror" when guards beat women. But such savagery, when leaked to the press, proved too ugly for America. Public pressure mounted. On Nov. 27, 1917, the Silent Sentinels were released. "They tried to terrorize and suppress us," a weakened Paul said. "They could not, so they freed us."
Two weeks later, the House again took up the Susan B. Anthony amendment. President Wilson soon called it "an act of right and justice." "The president has succumbed to the pickets," the Baltimore Sun announced. The next day, one year to the day after the Silent Sentinels took their stand, the amendment passed the House. Suffragists in the gallery wept, embraced. Back at NWP headquarters, they found Alice Paul at her desk. "Eleven to win before we can pass the Senate," she said.
A year later, the 19th amendment gave women the vote. "We all know who passed the federal amendment," one suffragist wrote. "It was little Alice Paul."
In 1923, Alice Paul introduced the Equal Rights Amendment before Congress. Forty-nine years later, it passed both houses. When she died in 1977, little-known as she preferred to be, the ERA was gaining momentum. Persist.