The Silent Sentinels

The Silent Sentinels were protesters who marched outside the White House during most of 1917 and 1918, holding banners calling on President Wilson to give women the right to vote. Though they received some encouragement from supporters, they were also mocked and belittled, and when World War One turned public opinion more harshly against critics of the president, they faced violence and imprisonment.

As the name implies, one of the distinguishing features of their protest is that they remained silent as they held their banners to call attention to lack of political “voice” that women had without the right to vote. Despite the militancy that they were forced to adopt as their picketing persisted, they incorporated femininity (such as dressing “properly”) into their protest to emphasize that they were not demanding the vote on the grounds of being “as competent as men,” but on the grounds of being competent as women. 

While imprisoned, they faced being fed rancid food, having inadequately heated cells in the dead of winter and forced feedings while hunger striking. Ultimately, however, their strength of spirit paid off: when they were released, they gained a lot of public sympathy, and this among other things led to the president endorsing their cause.

An important resource we had when researching the Silent Sentinels were their photographs. As a silent protest, the signs they held up were their main form of communication and showed what grievances they wanted the President and the public to hear. Another resource we found was called, The National American Woman’s Suffrage Association Collection. This archive is filled with valuable primary sources that speak to what was happening within the suffrage movement.

These documents include many insights into the leadership of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) and depict the state of mind their leaders had during this time. One of the documents in this archive, The Blue Book, mentions their reasons for protesting: “We protest against the continuance of this wrong against women; and appeal to Congress for relief by the immediate submission to the legislatures of the several states of an amendment to the Federal Constitution protecting women in the citizen’s right to vote (pg. 230).”

Silent protests use silence to represent the lack of voice that marginalized groups have. Silent protests can be effective ways of protesting nonviolently that represent what it looks like when rights that make people feel seen and heard – socially or politically – are not granted. Since the Sentinels, there have been examples of silent protests that have had big impacts. Recently, Colin Kaepernick, a successful football player, kneeled during the national anthem, to show support for black rights. America was divided, some happy to see someone with so much power take a stand for black rights, others appalled he would do so in such a public manner.  This shows how, although protesting can produce change, it also involves serious backlash. Luckily for the Sentinels, their pain did not go unwarranted. Because they silently protested, women can now proudly, loudly vote.

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