As lobbyists and lawmakers milled outside the House chamber last week, three women dressed in white with purple and green sashes held signs and stood quietly.
Kelly Jones, of North Salt Lake, and Jody England Hansen and Charlotte Maloney, both from Millcreek, were at the state Capitol on Tuesday in support of Utah ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment. But they were drawing on the imagery of the Silent Sentinels, suffragists who faced backlash as they picketed outside the White House more than a century ago to fight for women’s right to vote.
Two Utah women, Minnie Quay and Lovern Robertson, were among the dozens of pickets arrested in November 1917 outside the White House and subjected to what became known as the “Night of Terror." The suffragists, brutalized by guards, “were chained, beaten, choked and even violently force-fed when they went on a hunger strike," according to Rebekah Clark, a historical research associate who wrote about their ordeal for the nonprofit Better Days 2020.
“Those women were nothing if not persistent,” Clark said in an interview. “... For over two years, they had groups picketing in front of the White House for six days a week. ... And that persistence is a lesson for us in anything that we want to accomplish today for the things that matter to us.”
Since the legislative session began last month, there has been at least one “Silent Sentinel” at the Capitol each day during times when lawmakers are coming and going, said Jones, who’s on the Utah ERA Coalition’s executive committee. The goal, she said, is “to be unobtrusive but very visible.”
“People don’t always equate suffrage and equal rights,” Jones said, but in her mind, they go together. Alice Paul, who founded the National Woman’s Party that led the Silent Sentinel protests, also wrote the Equal Rights Amendment.
“We’re mostly there to send a message that women’s rights are important, that they are overdue to be part of our Constitution, and basically, that women are just not constitutionally protected right now," Jones said. “And that’s just such an important endeavor.”
This week, Better Days 2020 and other groups have events planned to celebrate past milestones — the 150th anniversaries of the day Utah’s territorial governor signed a bill giving women the right to vote, on Feb. 12, and the first vote by a Utah woman, on Feb. 14. (Utah women would lose suffrage years later, and successfully fought to regain it with statehood.)
Alice Paul grew impatient with how long the suffrage movement had gone on, said Susan Carter, current president of the National Woman’s Party. So, Paul, “an absolutely brilliant strategist,” started lobbying and protest efforts that led to the Silent Sentinels.
“Women came from all over the country to serve shifts standing in front of the White House. They stood there silently on the sidewalk outside the White House gates, day after day, holding their banners,” Carter said. “They were normal people doing extraordinary things."
Utah newspapers reported on Quay’s and Robertson’s involvement in the protests. Before going to join the pickets, Robertson told The Salt Lake Tribune in November 1917, “I do not expect to escape arrest.”
They were both really committed to the cause of women voting," Clark said, “and so they went knowing, at least in part, what they were getting into.”
The suffragists protested against the backdrop of World War I, which "seemed very almost treasonous to people. And it seemed very radical and anti-American,” Clark said. But the suffragists argued that if President Woodrow Wilson was going to fight for democracy abroad, then he should support women’s right to vote in the U.S.
“Some of (the Sentinels’) banners were quite provocative," and they turned Wilson’s words against him, Carter said. Pickets held a sign that read, “Mr. President you say ‘liberty is the fundamental demand of the human spirit,’” while another said, “Mr. President how long must women wait for liberty.”
Night of Terror
On Nov. 10, 1917, Quay, Robertson and the other pickets were arrested for obstructing traffic. “Unsuccessful in their demands for treatment as political prisoners," Clark wrote, “the suffragists were sentenced to 30 days in prison.”
Four days later, the suffragists were transferred to the Occoquan Workhouse. Quay later described the “Night of Terror” in an affidavit, saying guards “threw us into a dark dirty dungeon” that was “damp” with “tobacco spit on the floor.” The superintendent “ran up and down the corridor screaming to the guards to bring the handcuffs straight jacket and gags.”
“He informed me he had a Whipping Post at [Occoquan], and that he used it on the prisoners," Quay said in the affidavit.
Robertson described similar violence in an affidavit, according to Clark, saying “she heard the superintendent guarantee that ‘these men will handle them rough’ and then order that [Robertson] and others be kept away from the leaders of the group, whom he said ought to be ‘locked up in solitary confinement for the rest of their lives’ or ‘taken out and shot.'”
The Utah women’s husbands, R.B. Quay and C.T. Robertson, called the arrests an “outrage” and criticized Washington police in a Nov. 11, 1917, article in the Salt Lake Telegram. “I heartily indorse her stand in protecting her rights and the rights of the great American sisterhood," R.B. Quay said. “I will stand by her to the last ditch.”
Minnie Quay and Lovern Robertson “spent much of their time in the prison hospital before their early release on Nov. 29,” according to Clark. Afterward, they “remained committed to the suffrage cause.” When the National Woman’s Party asked Quay to return only a few weeks later, Quay said, “If I am needed, I shall not hesitate to return at once. I am ready to do anything within my power and no sacrifice is too great," according to a December 1917 Salt Lake Telegram article.
While it’s common today to hold protests outside the White House, the Silent Sentinels were “the first to do that. They were so groundbreaking," Clark said. Their tactics were seen later in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and are still used today — such as actress and political activist Jane Fonda’s frequent climate change protests outside the White House, Carter said.
“Although the protest was considered radical, the mistreatment of the Silent Sentinels angered many Americans and created more sympathy for the suffrage movement," Clark wrote. In 1918, Wilson declared his support for a federal women’s suffrage amendment. After Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919, it was ratified and became law in August 1920.
Ratifying the ERA
Reflecting on the Silent Sentinels today, Carter said she thinks “about where we are and how much we owe those people, those women. They really broke the ground. Their fight for our rights, it’s not just suffrage, but equal rights we’re the beneficiaries of.”
As Jones stands with her modern Silent Sentinels in Utah to fight for the ERA, “I do have people ask me, ‘Why is it still needed? Why do we still need it here?’ And I tell them because women’s rights can be walked back.”
Jones points to the Violence Against Women Act, a federal law that addressed domestic violence, which expired last year. The ERA would provide a “constitutional protection,” she said, and say “we value women."
“Equality is so important, and Utah can really make a statement by ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment,” said Maloney, who stood with Jones at the Capitol on Tuesday.
After first being proposed in the 1920s, the ERA — which states, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex" — passed the U.S. Senate and House in 1972. Last month, Virginia became the 38th and final state needed to add the amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Advocates expect there will be legal challenges ahead, though. Five states have voted to rescind their ratification. And some have argued that a 1982 deadline set by Congress could negate more recent ratification votes.
Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, introduced a joint resolution calling on Utah to vote for ratification, but it remains in the Rules Committee. Previous attempts to ratify the ERA never made it out of the committee.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said Wednesday that he hasn’t reached a position yet. “There are some concerns about it. That language is close to 40 years old, and with Virginia doing what they did last year, I think I’m not actually sure why this is needed here in Utah.”
Nearly 70% of Utahns support ratifying the ERA, according to a January poll from The Tribune and Suffolk University. And Jones said she hopes Utah will.
“Our effort can be even more important than Virginia’s, in some ways, because they had a very blue state," she said. “And ours would be a bipartisan effort that could ... make a stronger statement of support for women.”
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.