Today in Feminist History: The Suffragists Are Taking on President Wilson

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

January 9, 1917: The Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage has finally lost patience with President Wilson, and a new and more militant phase of the suffrage campaign began earlier this evening at a hastily-called “indignation meeting” at its headquarters.

Despite the fact that it’s a high-risk strategy, what Harriot Stanton Blatch calls “silent sentinels of liberty, sentinels of self-government,” will begin picketing along the White House fence tomorrow morning and continue to do so until President Wilson endorses the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment, then begins to use his considerable influence to help get it through Congress. 

Today actually began in a friendly, but somber manner. A delegation of 300 suffragists from around the country, led by Sara Bard Field, had been invited to the White House to present memorials to the President in honor of the late Inez Milholland Boissevain. She became a martyr to the cause of suffrage when she drove herself to the point of collapse and death on a recent Congressional Union speaking tour of the West. But since audiences with the President are rare, and his endorsement of the Anthony Amendment is crucial to getting his fellow Democrats – the party in power in both House and Senate – to give the suffrage amendment the votes it needs to be approved by Congress, he was asked once again to endorse nationwide woman suffrage. He seemed surprised at the request, and refused to change his previously stated position that though he personally supported woman suffrage on a State-by-State basis, he would not endorse a Federal suffrage amendment.

Sara Bard Field began the exchange by saying: “Mr. President, one of our most beautiful and beloved comrades, Inez Milholland, has paid the price of her life for a cause…. In the light of Inez Milholland’s death, as we look over the long backward trail through which we have sought our political liberty, we are asking, how long, how long, must this struggle go on?” 

The President replied:

I had not been apprised that you were coming here to make any representations that would issue an appeal to me. I had been told that you were coming to present memorial resolutions with regard to the very remarkable woman whom your cause has lost. I am therefore not prepared to say anything further than I have said on previous occasions of this sort. I do not need to tell you where my own convictions and my own personal purpose lie, and I need not tell you by what circumstances I am bound as the leader of a party.

As the leader of a party, my commands come from my party and not from private personal convictions. My personal action as a citizen, of course, comes from no source but my own conviction, and therefore my position has been so frequently defined and I hope so candidly defined, and it is so impossible for me, until the orders of my party are changed, to do anything other than I am doing, as a party leader, that I think nothing more is necessary to be said.

I do not want to say this. I do not see how anybody can fail to observe from the utterances of the last campaign that the Democratic Party is more inclined than the opposition party to assist in this great cause, and it has been a matter of surprise to me, and a matter of great regret, that so many of those who were heart and soul for this cause seemed so greatly to misunderstand and misinterpret the attitude of parties. Because in this country, and in every other self-governing country, it is only through the instrumentality of parties that things can be accomplished. They are not accomplished by the individual voice, but by concerted action, and that action must come only so fast as you can concert it.

I have done my best and shall continue to do my best to concert it in the interest of the cause in which I personally believe.

His visitors were not impressed by mere words of general support for suffrage, and were understandably skeptical of Wilson’s claim that he is more of a servant of his party than its leader, and therefore can do nothing for the Anthony Amendment until the Democratic Party “commands” him to support it. So, his visitors went back to Congressional Union headquarters determined to come up with something to get Wilson to work for the cause.

Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, presided at the aptly titled “indignation meeting.” She suggested that they employ an idea she had used in Albany, New York, in 1912. In an attempt to prod the Judiciary Committees of the New York State Legislature into taking action on suffrage, she stationed “Silent Sentinels” outside the Judiciary Room whenever the House or Senate committee was in session to remind them that women were still waiting for their right to vote.

This time, however, there will be many more than two sentinels, they will be holding up large, colorful banners with messages on them, and instead of being occasionally stationed outside an obscure committee room in Albany, they will be picketing daily next to the entrances to the White House so that President Wilson cannot enter or leave his residence without seeing their words.

According to Blatch: “We must go to him every day, we must have a continuous delegation to the President of the United States, if he is to realize the never-ceasing insistent demand of women that he take action where he is responsible. We may not be admitted within the doors, but we can at least stand at the gates. We may not be allowed to raise our voices and speak to the President, but we can address him just the same, because our message to him will be inscribed upon the banners which we will carry in our hands. Let us post our ‘silent sentinels’ at the gates of the White House.”

Alice Paul, the Congressional Union’s leader, has enthusiastically endorsed the idea, which gives her and other militant suffragists an outlet for the frustration they feel trying to get President Wilson to help the cause. This plan also has the additional advantage of being something that could win vast amounts of press attention.

A fund to supply all the necessities for the campaign, from umbrellas to be used in bad weather to the big suffrage banners, was quickly begun. Mary Burnham started the ball rolling with $1,000. Showing that she had lost none of her zeal, Mrs. Townsend Scott, one of six protesters who smuggled a suffrage banner into the House Gallery and unfurled it over the balcony as President Wilson was addressing Congress on December 5th, gave $100, then Elizabeth Kent went her one better and pledged $100 a month. 

No one knows exactly what will happen tomorrow morning. Though picketing of businesses by labor unions is nothing new, no group with a political goal has ever picketed the President at the White House. But the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage is about to single handedly escalate the fight. Considering the fact that she is a veteran of imprisonment, hunger strikes and force-feedings during her time in England almost a decade ago, there’s no doubt that Alice Paul and her band of militants will never back down, and will keep posting “Silent Sentinels” until Wilson gives in, or the vote is won without his help.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.