The Arrests of the Silent Sentinels
Did you know the Suffragists were the first group in US history to picket the White House?
From January 10th 1917 until June 4th 1919, women picketed the White House for the right to vote. 5 days a week, with breaks only for the times they were imprisoned, these ladies held signs and gave silent protest against the Woodrow administration. They were known as the Silent Sentinels.
Ninety-eight years ago, on November 14th, 1917, on what would be known after as the “Night of Terror”, the Silent Sentinels were arrested, beaten, and tortured by authorities.
This is their story:
The Silent Sentinels took up their posts in January, and the arrests began in June. The official charge was typically obstructing traffic. The majority of the public had little sympathy for these women. The country was in the midst of WWI and many saw protesting outside the White House as a nearly traitorous act. Authorities made frequent arrests, hoping to deter the women from their protests. These tactics failed. When released from prison, the women returned to their posts. November came and there were more arrests.
Prisoners were taken to the Occoquan Workhouse, where the conditions were terrible. Prisoners reported being served rancid food, squalid surroundings, and being denied medical care. An investigation was launched into the conditions at Occoquan, but it would be too little too late.
On November 14th, thirty-three protesters were arrested and taken to Occoquan. The guards met them with a planned greeting that became the Night of Terror. Forty-four guards with clubs beat, dragged, strangled, and kicked the thirty-three women in a scene of complete chaos. A 73 year-old woman was dragged by her hair. Another women was thrown. Another was stabbed with the staff from her own banner. Others were handcuffed and left in torture positions or thrown into small concrete punishment cells. We know this from the dozens of eye witness reports.
The lawyers of the National Women’s Party worked hard for the release of the Silent Sentinels. They obtained a court order to visit the prison, where they saw for themselves the condition of the protesters.
Two weeks after their arrest, the women had their day in court. The public was horrified by the sight of these obviously beaten women. The judge ordered that the prisoners be immediately transferred to the Washington jail.
When the women were finally released from prison, they took two weeks of convalescence over the Christmas holidays then began their protests again. The story of their time in Occoquan may have been what turned the tide for the NWP. They now had public support. Newspapers had reported the women’s treatment by authorities, and people were rightly outraged. The women’s case was heard by the Court of Appeals in January 1918 and in March the decision was unanimous– the Silent Sentinels had been illegally arrested, illegally convicted, and illegally imprisoned.
The women continued their protests until June 4th, 1919, when Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which gave *some* women the right to vote.
The Night of Terror was first acknowledged by the U.S. government in 2014 as a day of remembrance. Remember these events. It wasn’t that long ago. These women are our grandmothers and great-grandmothers.
Next time you think about skipping the voting booth, remember these women who fought so hard for what you have.