While New Year’s Day in 2020 kicks off a year of fiery campaigning for President Trump and Democratic presidential hopefuls, it also kicks off the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote in 1920. The most explosive campaign of the decades-long women’s suffrage story reveals a truth that is relevant to today’s electioneering. The sensation of a campaign will fade, but the logic behind it — the reality of the message — is what lasts and resonates.
On New Year’s Day in 1919, the Associated Press reported these sensational headlines from the White House: “Militant scuffs cause riot around watchfire” and “constant clash over ‘watchfire;’ one explosion.” But this was no New Year’s Eve fireworks show. This was a watchfire at the White House set by women seeking the right to vote.
Suffragists from the National Woman’s Party led by Alice Paul placed an urn on the sidewalk in direct line of President Woodrow Wilson’s door. Using symbolic wood from a tree in Philadelphia’s Independence Square, they lit a watchfire.
Though the sight of persevering women of all ages standing in the frigid cold as Wilson passed through the gates led to sensational headlines, the signs’ logic resonated: “We demand an amendment to the Constitution of the United States enfranchising women.”
Women had been fighting for the right to vote since 1848, when hundreds met in Seneca Falls, New York, and issued the Declaration of Sentiments for women, which was based on the Declaration of Independence. Although some states, such as Wyoming, had granted women suffrage, a national amendment was necessary to give all women voting rights.
When Wilson drew Americans into World War I in 1917, he asked both men and women to stand for liberty in Europe. The Silent Sentinels tapped a logical, ironic comparison to make their point with this signage: “Russia and England are enfranchising their women in war-time. How long must American women wait for their liberty?”
When French and English diplomatic allies visited Wilson, the sentinels held signs declaring: “Democracy should begin at home. We demand justice and self-government at home.”
The logic behind the signs embarrassed Wilson, who was asking American mothers to sacrifice their sons for democracy in Europe while failing to use his power as the Democratic Party’s leader to push for their right to vote.