Today in Feminist History: Freedom on the Anniversary of Seneca Falls (July 19, 1917)

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.

July 19, 1917: Freedom for the “Silent Sentinels!”

President Woodrow Wilson

At least until their next protest…. Today, on the 69th anniversary of the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, all 16 pro-suffrage pickets who had been serving 60-day sentences in Virginia’s infamous Occoquan Workhouse for picketing at the White House were pardoned by President Wilson. 

At first, the prisoners hesitated to accept the pardons, because they feel they are guilty of nothing that needs pardoning. The charge of “obstructing traffic” on the spacious sidewalk is nonsense, because pedestrians could easily bypass 16 women standing along the White House fence. But once they understood all the circumstances, the prisoners decided to accept the pardons, and tonight are enjoying their freedom by attending a celebration in their honor at National Woman’s Party headquarters. It was stressed by those here that the pardons were in no way conditional upon stopping the picketing, and that they reserved the right to continue it. 

According to Mary Hall Ingham:

“When Warden Whittaker brought us word this afternoon that the President had pardoned us, we voted unanimously not to accept until we could hear whether our cause had made progress through our sacrifice. We were not after a pardon, but the privilege of petition and the adoption of the suffrage amendment. When Mr. Malone and others came to the Workhouse after us, the news they brought from the outside was very encouraging. We believe the President has been enlisted in our cause. We decided to accept the pardon, which was unconditional, and we came away just as quickly as possible. The experience was hard, but we trust it has shown our earnestness. We are willing to go through it and more for a principle should it become necessary.”

Just hours after their sentencing and transportation to the Workhouse on the 17th, the President talked at length with Dudley Field Malone, lawyer for the suffragists. Last night Wilson had an equally long conversation with J.A.H. Hopkins, husband of Allison Turnbull Hopkins, one of the prisoners. Hopkins told Wilson that the country was outraged at the lengthy sentences given the women for peacefully picketing outside the White House gates for suffrage, and that sentiment for the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment was building nationwide and in Congress. Hopkins made it clear that the goal of the protesters is winning a Constitutional ban on sex discrimination at the polls nationwide, and that their campaign will continue until they get it.

The President seemed concerned about the ordeals of the prisoners as well as learning the true degree of support for the suffrage amendment in Congress. So, he asked Hopkins to take a poll to find out how many pro-suffrage votes there are in the Senate and House. Wilson is considering the possibility of endorsing the Anthony Amendment, and even asking for it as a “war measure,” which would greatly increase its chances of passage. 

The departure of the suffrage prisoners from the Workhouse was not a friendly one. Superintendent Whittaker told Lucy Burns that if more members of the National Woman’s Party should find themselves in his prison, he would not show them the same “consideration” given the first 16. This seemed to refer to the amount of time they were given to talk to their lawyer. Attorney Malone then pointed out to Whittaker that talking to one’s lawyer was not “special treatment,” and by the tone of the conversation it appears that the two have quickly developed an intense dislike for each other.

There is still much controversy about these “Silent Sentinels” of the National Woman’s Party, who picket President Wilson at the White House to protest his vigorous advocacy of democracy abroad, while doing nothing to enfranchise tens of millions of voteless women in States where suffrage referenda have not yet been passed. Officers of the Woman Suffrage Party said today that they were still opposed to such “militant” methods, but would be happy if the President supported the Anthony Amendment regardless of the reason:

“Our organization has been trying to win the vote through patriotic service and quiet educational propaganda. It now seems as if the Government wishes to show us by its present action that it rather prefers militant tactics. We prefer to win in our own way, but if the President will take a hand and force our bill through Congress we shall be very grateful. It will give the Democratic Party the great credit of taking the biggest step forward in democracy which has been made since the Civil War.”

Abby Scott Baker, head of the National Woman’s Party’s Press Committee said in reply:

“The members of the Woman Suffrage Party go to the Government, and, standing obsequiously, they say, ‘Won’t you please give us the vote?’ Then the Government officials say rudely: ‘No, we don’t like the way you do your hair,’ and the Suffrage Party women go off and do their hair another way. Now, we shake our fists in their face and say: ‘Do you want what we have, the power of the woman voter?’ and they are glad to give us their attention.”

Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, said Wilson showed “his usual astute comprehension of the psychology of the situation.” In what’s probably a wildly overoptimistic prediction, Catt went on to say that: “With the clash of the pickets over, he can more readily insure a quick passage of the Federal suffrage amendment, which the National American Woman Suffrage Association has declared from the first was a ‘war measure’ and should be recognized as such by the Sixty-Fifth Congress.”

But the picketers have supporters as well as critics. Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and who is the founder of the Women’s Political Union, sent a telegram to President Wilson on behalf of the pickets yesterday, and money has been pouring in to National Woman’s Party headquarters in both large and small donations.

The suffrage battle is far from over, but it’s a good sign that so many National Woman’s Party members have now proven that they will not be intimidated, nor compromise on things as basic as their right to protest or to vote, and that even the President now seems to have a growing concern about their welfare (or, perhaps, about their increasing notoriety, sympathy from the public, and political influence).


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.