Today in Feminist History: Suffrage Talk from the Grapevine Comes to Capitol Hill

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 13, 1917: Four days of picketing President Wilson at the White House have brought gratifying results, and though the Silent Sentinels will be taking tomorrow off because it’s Sunday, the protests will be even bigger next week.

The campaign will continue until President Wilson endorses, then lobbies Congress for passage of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Today there was a marked increase in visitors and volunteers at the nearby headquarters of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, all as a direct result of people seeing their pickets, banners and tricolor standards next to the White House gates.

PHOTO: President Wilson (left) and another gentleman passing by the Silent Sentinels on their way out of a White House gate. The banners say “Mr. President what will you do for woman suffrage” and “Mr. President how long must women wait for liberty.”

Even President Wilson has been giving increased respect to the Sentinels, despite being the object of their protest. He went from being expressionless at first, to smiling, then tipping his hat, and today bowing slightly as he passed through the gate. In response, the pickets briefly dipped their banners as a way of returning the salute.

The Silent Sentinels have also been getting a lot of friendly attention from the squirrels populating the White House lawn. Though squirrels tend to be neutral on the issue of woman suffrage, they’re quite useful to the cause by drawing crowds who like to watch the picketers feed them by tossing peanuts through the fence.

One visitor to today’s protest, who’s in a position to overhear Members of Congress talking candidly with each other, passed along a note with encouraging news. According to this anonymous source, two prominent politicians were having a conversation in which both agreed that women were becoming angry at the way the Anthony Amendment was being stalled, and that the only sure way for their party to avoid the wrath of women voters in the eleven equal suffrage states would be to simply pass the measure and send it to the state legislatures for ratification.

The Congressional Union called a meeting late this afternoon to give the pickets a chance to share their experiences, and to plan strategy for next week. A number of the party’s new recruits attended, and after hearing from the Silent Sentinels, volunteered to do sentry duty themselves. Extra personnel will be needed, because instead of just picketing alongside the gates, an attempt will be made to line the entire White House fence along Pennsylvania Avenue late one afternoon next week. That time of day has been chosen because many of the picketers have family duties to perform in the early morning and at lunchtime. Since plans have been announced to encircle the White House on Inauguration Day (March 4th) this sounds like a good way to get in some practice coordinating a much bigger picket line than the usual twelve (three on each side of the East and West gates).

On many future dates, all the picketers will be from the same area. Monday is “Washington, D.C. Day,” and next Thursday is “Maryland Day.” Twenty women from Baltimore and Annapolis have already volunteered to represent their State on Thursday, but more would certainly be welcome. If you’d like to be part of this historic event, and would prefer to be with people from your home State, please contact the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage at Cameron House on Lafayette Square to find out which day to come for orientation and picket duty.

The first four days of this campaign have certainly been amazing, and it’s just getting started, so there’s no telling how much may be accomplished in the upcoming weeks!


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.