The 2012 Silent Sentinel Award Ceremony, hosted by the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Committee (TPSM), was held May 30th. Attending guests arrived at the beautiful Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, VA, where they were given the opportunity to participate in a silent auction. Proceeds were donated toward the construction of a Suffragist Memorial, located in Occoquan Regional Park in Lorton, VA.
This year’s Silent Sentinel Award was presented to historian Ann D. Gordon, for her outstanding work with some 14,000 documents of famous suffragists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, as well as her work with producer/director Ken Burns. There to present the honor was award-winning journalist and keynote speaker, Eleanor Clift.
The original Silent Sentinels were a group of women who were imprisoned, tortured, and abused in the Occoquan Workhouse (now the Lorton Correctional Complex), after protesting in front of the White House for voting rights. Led by suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, the women picketed the White House in the summer of 1917, and were arrested shortly thereafter.
Remaining true to their cause, they formed a hunger strike at the workhouse. Prison guards attempted to deter the women by forcing them to live under harsh and brutal conditions. They used iron clamps to force open the suffragists’ mouths, and force-fed them raw eggs and milk. One woman, Lucy Burns, cracked her head against an iron bedpost when some guards threw her into a dark cell. Thinking Burns was dead, her cellmate suffered from a heart attack. The conditions worsened until finally the women were transferred out of the Occoquan Workhouse after Federal Judge Waddill ruled they were sent there illegally. Three women prisoners received parole because “they were so near collapse from what they had undergone at Occoquan that it was feared further confinement would result in their deaths.”
Although the women’s suffrage movement is included on most school curriculums, the history and sufferings of the Silent Sentinels are not, and still remain widely unknown. TPSM hopes the memorial will salvage that.
“You don’t see suffragists pictured this way in history books: physically and psychologically tortured, humiliated, force-fed, sleep-deprived and threatened with being sent to a psychiatric ward. But that’s what dozens of women endured in order to win the right to vote.” TPSM says, “We believe these women should be honored, and their story told.”
Actual descendants of the Silent Sentinels were also in attendance that evening. Great granddaughters Winslow Eliot and Nora Horan, as well as great grandson Raymond Nolan were descendents of suffragists Ada Devonport Kendall, Elizabeth Seldon Rogers, and Mary A. Nolan, respectively.
One woman recalls watching her grandmother getting dressed up to vote. “I was a child then, I didn’t realize why it was such a big deal, but I remember her putting on her gloves, and dress to go to the ballot. To her, it was so special. Now, people these days won‘t even go out to vote if it is raining.”
Indeed, at the time, it was a very big deal. After a 75-year struggle, the right to vote was not taken for granted by most. However, nearly one hundred years have passed since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, and perhaps the sweetness of the victory has gone stale. Although the 2008 elections saw a larger voter turn out than in recent decades, the past 15 years have an average of only 56% voter turnout at presidential elections. This percentage is including the higher voter turnout of 2008. Coming in at an average 43%, general elections of the past 15 years fared even worse.
Roughly only half of the voting population is actually voting. Do people take their right to vote for granted – when so many still are ineligible voters? Do those who can vote take advantage of that right? Have people completely forgotten the history behind that highly sought right?
Silent Sentinel Award recipient Ann Gordon read the audience a quote from Susan B. Anthony’s letter to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Anthony, fed up with the timidity of the younger generation demanded, “How can you not be on fire? I wonder if when I am under the sod—or cremated and floating in the air—I shall have to stir you and others up… I really believe I shall explode if some of you young women don’t wake up!”
Proponents of the Silent Sentinel Award ceremony and the Turning Point Suffragist Movement would like you to remember the history, the struggle, and the heroic achievements of these remarkable women.
The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial will be dedicated to these suffragist women, and this historical monument will serve as a reminder of all the work they did for suffrage.