Picketing the White House in 1917

After the National Woman’s Party made significant efforts throughout 1916 to organize western women voters to oppose President Wilson and the Democrats in the upcoming election, Wilson was re-elected and the Democrats retained control of Congress, an outcome that was met with mixed reviews by the NWP. Publicly, they claimed some victories, as we highlight in this blog. Privately, the organization retreated, healing their wounds, to plan for the next major tactic that would advance the federal suffrage amendment. Beginning in January 1917, after a failed deputation to the President in the name of the suffrage martyr Inez Milholland Boissevain, the NWP initiated an entirely new tactic that proved extremely powerful in changing public sentiment: picketing the White House.

Beginning in January of 1917 and lasting for over two years, NWP members coordinated an ongoing demonstration in front of the White House gates. Thousands of women, known as “silent sentinels,” came from across the country and took turns standing in place, quietly no matter the weather. They burned Wilson’s speeches and silently held purple, white, and gold banners for the President and everyone else to see. Banner slogans included messages such as “How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” and “Mr. President: What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage?” Pickets were both meant to press the point that the President was ignoring the suffrage cause, and to gain publicity, by swaying public opinion. In order to keep the pickets in the newspapers, the NWP would hold theme days: Maryland State Day, College Day, Bastille Day, and many more; they even held a Working Women Day, the only picket held on a Sunday, making it possible for working women to attend without losing a day’s wages.

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In the beginning, onlookers would quietly observe the women standing in front of the White House. The pickets were not taken too seriously, and President Wilson would politely tip his hat to the suffragists when he walked through the gates or ask them in for tea on particularly cold days (an invitation they refused). But as the year continued, the situation became more serious. Crowds began harassing the steadfast protestors, and the silent sentinels had to learn to stand their ground when faced with their most violent opposition.

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This year we commemorate the centennial of the NWP’s White House Pickets. Reportedly the first organization to ever picket the White House, the NWP led the way for many generations to come. The women of 1917 stepped from Cameron House at 21 Madison Place, NW, to stand silently in front of the White House, and this, 100 years later, we will chart their path. Follow our Facebook and Twitter channels to learn more about these daily demonstrations and the individuals who participated in the campaign – either through picketing, fundraising, or other support mechanisms. Follow along with us as we retrace the steps of the NWP in their aggressive and highly publicized campaign that became the tipping point for public opinion of the suffrage question.

 

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