Opinion | White House

White House protests — it all began with Alice Paul

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Before the days of social distancing and teleworking, the view of my third-floor office window overlooking historic Lafayette Square included gatherings of passionate citizens who had arrived at the White House's north lawn to engage in lawful protest. Each time I watched the exercise of free speech, I wondered whether the demonstrators knew that - now 100 years after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment - they were literally standing on the shoulders of a slightly framed woman named Alice Paul, the original White House dissident.

A Quaker who learned about social protest during her graduate studies in England, Alice Paul dedicated her life and talents to the passage of the federal suffrage amendment. By 1916, her National Woman's Party (NWP) had taken up residence in Cameron House on Lafayette Square. She had already gained notoriety by orchestrating the infamous 1913 Washington, D.C. suffrage parade the day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. With the advent of modern politics and mass communication on the brink of transformation, Paul understood the importance of strategy and spectacle. Her more cautious compatriots of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) led by Carrie Chapman Catt were playing the inside game by lobbying the White House in private meetings, but Paul felt that approach had failed to generate significant social change concerning women's suffrage.

On January 10, 1917, a group of twelve women emerged from Cameron House. They made the short walk from the eastern side of Lafayette Square to the fence bordering the north lawn of the White House and held up signs in support of the Nineteenth Amendment. The women came to be known as the "Silent Sentinels" because they did not engage verbally with onlookers or those who felt as though women did not have a constitutional right to vote.

The protests continued until June, when the first suffragists were arrested outside the White House with the formal charge of the obstruction of traffic.

The order to arrest the suffragists came from Woodrow Wilson and his administration. Wilson had grown tired of the protests during wartime. When they were arrested, suffragists spent time behind bars at either the city jail or the Occoquan Prison and Workhouse 22 miles south of Washington. Jailers at both locations were unsympathetic to the suffragists. Alice Paul, who served multiple sentences behind bars, was force fed after she engaged in a hunger strike. In another instance, the criminal justice system questioned her sanity and she narrowly avoided being committed to a psychiatric facility. What other explanation besides psychosis could explain a woman who organized protests at the White House and demanded that women should have the right to vote?

Much like other leaders of social movements, Alice Paul was not perfect. She allowed the racist beliefs of southern suffragists to dictate her actions and decisions, which led to the unequal treatment of women of color who supported the cause. As wrongheaded as her beliefs were, the final battleground concerning ratification of the amendment transpired in Tennessee. Paul remained in Washington, D.C. during the last debate, yet the specter of race did not subside. In fact, the closing arguments and demonstrations of the amendment's ratification revolved around the expansion of African American suffrage rather than gender.

Since 1917, the history of protest in the vicinity of the White House has included demonstrations about race, LGBTQ+ rights, poverty, war, the treatment of Native Americans, reproductive rights, nuclear arms, and other civil freedoms.

Every time a person sets foot inside Lafayette Square to march toward the White House in an attempt to make his or her voice heard by the most powerful occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they do so because a 30-year-old woman decided over a century ago that even though she did not have the right to vote, she could exercise her rights of expression as an American citizen and attempt to inform others about her cause.

These courageous efforts contributed to Congress recently declaring August "National Women's Suffrage Month," commemorating women like Alice Paul who helped make the "People's House" live up to its ideals of equality.

As the nation decides what statues and monuments best exemplify the diverse history of our country and our democratic values, let us not forget Alice Paul. Without her leadership and ingenuity, there would be no historical legacy of protest or civic engagement at the White House. We honor her memory by learning from the complexities of her courageous example.

Dr. Colleen J. Shogan is the senior vice president of the White House Historical Association and the director of the David Rubenstein Center for White House History. She is the vice chair of the Women's Suffrage Centennial Commission and previously served as the deputy director of the Congressional Research Service.