Today in Feminist History: Alice Paul’s Activist Birthday Celebration

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 11, 1917: Alice Paul spent her 32nd birthday in typically active style today, coordinating the efforts of the “Silent Sentinels” who are picketing President Wilson.

The protest stems from a meeting between Wilson and 300 suffragists day before yesterday, in which he gave them a totally unsatisfactory explanation for his refusal to endorse or work for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would ban sex discrimination at polling places nationwide. He alleges that though he favors woman suffrage in principle, as his party’s leader, he is bound by its dictates, and therefore must remain silent on the Anthony Amendment until the Democratic Party endorses it, and “commands” him to help get it passed by Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the States. 

As was the case yesterday, “Silent Sentinels” took up their posts along the White House fence, next to the East and West gates at 9:00 a.m., carrying banners which asked: “Mr. President, What Will You Do For Woman Suffrage?”

The large banners at the sides of each gate were flanked by the purple, white and gold standards of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. Two volunteers temporarily joined the picket line today. One was Mary Wheeler, of Liverpool, England, and the other was Virginia Bertheim of Berlin, Germany. Despite their countries being at war, they stood with each other in support of woman suffrage. 

The temperature plunged very low today, and strong winds made it feel even colder, but at least the question of whether a full contingent of 12 pickets will report for each of the two shifts during Washington’s D.C.’s coldest weather has been answered in the affirmative. Even lower temperatures are expected for tomorrow, but the Sentinels have come up with a defense against the winter chill. Some are standing on hot bricks wrapped in newspapers on top of wooden boards, and all are served generous amounts of hot chocolate by off-duty pickets.

While the climate outside the White House is getting more hostile each day, it seems to be just the opposite inside. Once again, the Chief Executive encountered the pickets as he was driven through a White House gate. Today, however, instead of an expressionless, rigidly straight-forward-looking entry, he definitely gave a smile to the pickets as he passed by. 

But the Presidential smile was only the beginning. Later on, he sent a message inviting the Sentinels to warm up inside the White House. His surprising offer was discussed, but unanimously rejected. The pickets kept at their frigid posts, intent on getting just two things from Woodrow Wilson. They want his official endorsement of the Anthony Amendment, followed by proof that he is using his full influence on his fellow party members who control both House and Senate, to get the two-thirds majority needed for passage and to send the amendment to the 48 States for ratification by 36.


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.