Life in 1917: The ‘silent sentinels’ quietly demand right to vote

Photo collage of images of Camp Randall Stadium and protestors at the White House in 1917
Photo collage of images of Camp Randall Stadium and protestors at the White House in 1917

A series exploring life in Madison and beyond during Camp Randall Stadium’s first year


“We desire to make known to you, Mr. President, our deep sense of the wrong being inflicted upon women, in making them spend their best health and strength, and forcing them to abandon other work that means fuller self expression, in order to win freedom under a government that professes to believe in democracy. No price is too high to pay for liberty. So long as the lives of women are required, these lives will be given.”

— Written appeal from National Woman’s Party to President Woodrow Wilson, January 1917


BY MARK MEDERSON | UWBadgers.com Contributor

Photo of Alice Paul
Alice Paul

The first day of the new year, 1917, fell on a Monday. On that day the University of Oregon edged out the University of Pennsylvania, 14-0, in just the third installment of the annual Rose Bowl game. The Official NCAA Division I Football Records Book lists Georgia Tech as the national champion that year.

A gallon of gas cost about 17.5 cents (about $3.45 in today’s dollars). More Americans were interested in the price of gasoline because 5 million cars were on the road. That was a 33-fold increase from 1910 in part because the Ford Model T sold for $260 in 1916 compared to $850 in 1908.

Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin were top draws at the box office, but their films did not include the sound of their voices. It would be ten years before the first feature “talkie” would debut.

The United States was still three months from joining with England, France and Russia on the battlefields of World War I.

And, in October of that year, the first University of Wisconsin football game was played in Camp Randall Stadium, a 34-0 win over Beloit.

All year we have been celebrating 100 years of Camp Randall Stadium. To continue this celebration of the centennial anniversary of the stadium’s opening, we will be regularly presenting a story to help readers understand a bit more about life in the year that the stadium opened. The goal is to give a better feel for what life was like; these installments will attempt to help understand life on campus, in Madison, in Wisconsin and in the world in 1917.

Stories like this one:

Scan of the 19th Amendment
19th Amendment

On January 9, Alice Paul led a group from the National Woman’s Party on a march to the White House gates. Around 300 “prominent” women from all across the nation attended the march. Their goal was to bring attention to their suffragist movement, seeking voting rights for all women. President Woodrow Wilson met with representatives from the group in the East Room. The delegation gave Wilson three sets of resolutions along with a written appeal, which read:

“We desire to make known to you, Mr. President, our deep sense of the wrong being inflicted upon women, in making them spend their best health and strength, and forcing them to abandon other work that means fuller self expression, in order to win freedom under a government that professes to believe in democracy. No price is too high to pay for liberty. So long as the lives of women are required, these lives will be given.”

The protestors were motivated, in part, by the death of one of their leaders, Inez Milholland. The 30 year-old Milholland became ill and died while on a woman’s voting rights speaking tour in November of 1916. She was considered the first martyr of the suffrage movement.

Wilson believed that the states and not the federal government should take up the right for the woman’s vote. After leaving the East Room, the women vowed to station themselves at 12 points around the White House daily for the next three months. Known as the “Silent Sentinels,” they stood quietly and held signs promoting the right of women to vote. The Silent Sentinels, considered to be the first picketers to ever protest at the White House, were often met with jeers and violent opposition. They said their presence would mean that Wilson could not enter or leave the mansion without being reminded of the groups demand for voting rights.

The Suffrage movement, which began in 1848, was not realized until the 19th Amendment was ratified. The amendment was passed on May 21, 1919. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified ratification of the amendment on August 26, 1920. The key wording of the amendment reads as follows:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

Silent Sentinels protesting at the White House in 1917
Silent Sentinels protesting at the White House in 1917