On March 3, 1913, the first massive organized march paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C., right in front of the White House. It was for Women’s Suffrage, and it wouldn’t be the last time women would take a stand in front of “the people’s house.” Depending on the source, between 5,000 and 10,000 people participated in the march, which took place the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. The message was clear: It was time to allow women to vote.
Meanwhile, in Charlotte during that same year, one teenage girl marched in a city parade holding an innocuous suffrage banner. It’s also around that time that women throughout North Carolina began creating their own suffrage groups, including here in the Queen City, thanks to the efforts of Anna Forbes Liddelle. There was even a special suffrage edition of The Charlotte Observer, and other newspapers in the state published serious articles on the topic.
And yet, by 1917, the state had only 175 members in some 20 suffrage clubs, according to North Carolina Making History, a book by Margaret Supplee Smith and Emily Herring Wilson.
Members of Charlotte suffrage groups were, according to several sources, usually the wives of wealthy business men and meetings were more like tea parties than rallies worthy of the “radical” label that others tended to thrust onto any Southern woman who dared fight for her right to vote.
The march in D.C. was a break in protocol for the suffrage movement, which, since the mid-1850s, had been prim and proper. It marked a decisive split between the old guard and the new. The younger women, led by Alice Paul, were ready to get into people’s faces while the older women were still trying, after 65 years, to reason with politicians.
By 1916, Paul made the break official when she created the National Women’s Party. In 1917, her group began daily silent protests in front of the White House. Day in, day out — rain, snow, sleet, heat — they were there. They became known as the “Silent Sentinels.” For two and a half years they did this, holding signs that read, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” and “Mr. President, you say liberty is the fundamental demand of the public spirit.”
According to the U.S. National Park Service (NPS): “The women were harassed and beaten and were repeatedly arrested and jailed on charges of ‘obstructing traffic.’ The women were sent to the Occoquan Workhouse (a prison) in Virginia … (where) conditions were awful.”
When they refused to eat their mouths were forced open. When they clenched their jaws, tubes were forced into their noses and raw eggs and other foods were poured into their bodies. When they were released, they returned to the White House and stood with their signs and endured the taunts, abuse and arrests all over again.
“Protesters faced daily violence from both passers-by and the police, including having their banners ripped from their hands and being physically attacked and arrested,” the NPS explains on its website. “The brutality with which the women were treated created enormous public support for suffrage.”
Finally, according to NPS, “In 1917, the superintendent of Occoquan ordered over 40 guards to attack the Silent Sentinels. Battered, choked and beaten, some to unconsciousness, the women described it as the ‘Night of Terror.’”
Once news of the extreme abuse became common knowledge, the public’s opinion of suffrage shifted. President Wilson had to relent, and in September 1918 he gave a speech urging Congress to pass the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the ratification of which we celebrate the 100th anniversary of this year — no thanks to the North Carolina General Assembly, which didn’t vote to ratify the amendment until 1971.
In Wilson’s defense, he was a little busy with the 1918 influenza pandemic and World War I during the Silent Sentinel’s daily protests. However, in his speech, he finally acknowledged that women played a pivotal role in the war’s success, saying, “…we have made partners of the women in this war … Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”
On Feb. 29, The Washington Post published a profile titled “Miranda’s Rebellion.” In it, Southern women are credited as the linchpin in the 2020 presidential election.
“[Miranda] is 39, a high school English teacher with a PhD and part of a voting demographic whose rebellion could upend the political map of the country: not just suburban women, not just white suburban women, but white suburban women in the South, whose loyalty Trump will need to remain in power,” writes Stephanie McCrummen. “It’s the kind of loyalty that has always been expected of white Southern women, who have long played a role as allies of the status quo.”
But then again, anything could happen.
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