Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Silent Sentinels and Their Night of Terror

Lucy Burns was chained by her hands to the cell bars above her head, where she hung for the rest of the night barely able to breathe.

Dora Lewis was thrown into a dark cell and then knocked out cold when her jailers smashed her head against an iron bed.

Other women were dragged, beaten, choked, pinched, twisted and kicked by their jailers.

These women were imprisoned for 60 days by order of the District of Columbia courts and were subjected to unsanitary prison conditions and worm-infested food. Drinking water was a privilege bestowed only on those who were subservient to their masters.

Who were the prisoners? They were women protesters whose organizations petitioned President Woodrow Wilson to support them in pushing for the vote for women. When he did not act on their behalf, they picketed the White House.

Who were the jailers? Acting under the authority of both local and federal government officials in Washington D. C. on November 15, 1917, these “jailers” were all white American males, many dressed in business suits, some wearing hats.

This was the Night of Terror for women suffragists in the United States of America.

Women who lawfully picketed the White House politely demanding the right to vote were arrested and jailed. Their civil rights as citizens were violated in our democratic society where concepts of individual liberties are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and subject to the due process of law….to everyone except females in 1917.

Forty prison guards rampaged throughout the night of November 15, 1917 wielding clubs with their warden’s blessing against 33 women protesters.

The United States had chosen to “handle” these protesters by arresting them for obstructing sidewalk traffic. When the warden ordered his guards to teach those girls a lesson because they dared to picket Woodrow Wilson’s White House for the right to vote, word finally leaked out to the press. Newspaper readers were horrified at the tales being told by observers.

The leader of these brave and determined women, Alice Paul, was a Quaker whose religion taught equality of the sexes. She was arrested and jailed, refused to eat, was tied to a chair, then force fed with a tube jabbed down into her throat until she bled profusely from her nose and mouth.

Paul organized the Silent Sentinels, a group of women who rotated their time to quietly stand at the White House gates with signs meant to challenge or embarrass Wilson. These women knew they were second-class citizens in their country of birth, yet fervently believed in their status as human beings who were entitled to equal standing with males, rights that were guaranteed by the Constitution.

Wilson tried to get control of Alice Paul by calling in legal and medical minds, all male of course, to discuss how they could permanently institutionalize Paul by declaring her insane. One psychiatrist present offered his daring belief that “Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.”

The interesting side of this story is that there were actually women psychiatrists in America at that time but more was known about the many women who were institutionalized for mental problems than about the few women practicing medicine. Mental problems were a safe diagnosis for those women whose families wanted to be rid of them.

U.S. Senator Tom Leighton was so distraught about his wife’s participation in the suffrage movement that he took away her allowance (remember that women could not own property and relied on the men in their lives for financial support). When she was arrested, he took their two daughters to his mother because his wife was “unfit.”

After she was sent to the workhouse with other suffragists, he found and read her diary. When he read her heart felt statement that American women are not free whether in prison or out, he was stunned. Calling on his wife in prison, she slipped him a note about the abuses….and this is how the press finally became aware of how American officials were treating American women.

The National Women’s History Project says “American suffragists played a major role in writing women back into history” after we had been omitted or erased from the public record until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Without knowing our history, we can never achieve what we are capable of achieving in this world.

For more about women’s history in the United States as collated by this worthwhile organization, go to

For more about the suffragists and how far we have come since 1920, see my video by going to and clicking on Julia’s video. You will note that the background music is Beethoven’s Ninth. It is a fitting choice because this innovative symphony, the first with a vocal score, has themes of equality and redemption linked to the common quest for freedom in politics, art, and particularly freedom of the mind and spirit.

What else did the suffragettes and suffragists ask for more than freedom to interact as citizens of their countries?


  1. Harrowing story that I had never been taught in school (Hmmm...Wonder why) From this tale is seems suspected terrorists at Guantanamo are treated better than our heroic women suffragists. Thanks for a great post, Julia!

  2. Unfortunately it seems that you are correct about Gitmo and suffragists....and it all started with ancient philosophers and theologians because they declared the female to be inferior. We are still fighting off that label. Thanks for your comments!

  3. Julia: We live in a nation that bandies about the term "hero" with a frequency that diminishes the real meaning of the word. But in this case, it is a term not heard often enough, if at all, to describe those courageous women who stood up to power to gain a right that should have been "inalienable." God Bless the heroines of the suffrage movement and all those who still carry that torch. Heroism did indeed wear a bustle.

  4. Julia, Much love to you and your family. Thank you for posting this touching blog about our women, the Suffragists. It brought tears to my eyes and touched my heart for in a very subtle way, for while we are not being jailed for speaking out, we as women are still being underminded. It is like the plights of the Suffragists were in vain somehow.

    I have never been one to vote once I came to America to live because long ago I came to understand how the political system in America works and I did not like it. However, since the last election, I renewed my faith. I came to learn of a new political party "Twelve Visions Party (TVP) whose ideals I admire and willing to vote for.

    You also inspired me in that now I know how important it is to exercise my right to vote and fight for the rights of women. I do not want to disappoint those women who put their lives in grave peril so women like me can have the right to vote.

    Thank you again for posting this. LOVEFORLIFEALWAYS!

  5. Great blog! Makes you want to research and know more, that's for sure. Interesting timing, too, that I've just seen the news of a Woman head coach of a high school varsity football team in DC...a first. What? You'd think that 90 years later, this kind of thing wouldn't be the case, much less news. It makes the statement "Without knowing our history, we can never achieve what we are capable of achieving in this world" hit home. All I can say is...I'll be John Brown... Thanks Julia!

  6. To my friend Steve Banko, Vietnam vet and frequent commentator: Heroes like you always recognize other heroes(heroines)because you share the same willingness to fight for what is right. Kathleen's comment just before yours is shocking: Who would have believed American civilians would treat American women worse than the American military treats suspected terrorists? Thanks for your comments Steve.

  7. To Ayaba: Thank you for taking time to share your experiences with this blog audience! Your TVP sounds like a spiritually based religious organization, which should be a plus for you! Early this morning I was a guest on Kris Phillips' 1240 AM station here in St. Augustine. One caller, male, vehemently stated that the Bible says women are the weaker vessel...I dispute that statement because there are many interpretations of the Bible and just as many versions. And, too, keep in mind that the Bible gospels that were accepted into the Christian religion in the first three centuries C.E. were all approved by the first Catholic leaders of the church. If you read my blog from August 8 you will note that early Catholic leaders declared women to be "defective males." Again my thanks for your sharing with our blog audience your experiences both inside and outside the U.S. You are blessed!

  8. Dearest Cassandra: It is such a pleasure to watch my niece gulp down women's history and recognize the disparities in historical reports!
    You have taken note of the striking contrast between versions of history before the 1970s and history as reported after women's studies programs were established. As you say, today's news about the first female football head coach in Washington D.C. is amazing after what we have learned about how women were treated by the D.C. police and the White House in 1917. What you are doing is what many young women are beginning to be aware of now: You are unconsciously watching the way women are treated, received, and accepted/not accepted in today's world. That is what it takes to create change...knowing your history and watching how it is reflected in the women in today's world. Thanks for keeping up!