Suffrage Voiceless Speeches


Oratory was a common mode of expression deployed in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century US woman suffrage campaign, but during these years, women who spoke in public were thought to violate gender norms. By contrast, women who presented voiceless speeches, i.e. silently held or displayed placards that contained messages promoting their political agenda, were able to maintain social decorum while publically challenging gender norms. “A silent suffragist,” Jean Baker (2002) explains, would simply “stand in a shop window with a series of simple suffrage messages … displayed one-by-one to crowds who stopped to watch” (p. 167). The form of the voiceless speech was entertaining for spectators, but the message was often serious (Chapman & DeLay, n.d.).

When voiceless speeches proved effective in generating media attention, the venue moved from shop windows to a more controversial location. When the National Woman’s Party (NWP), picketed the White House, pickets known as “silent sentinels” displayed “voiceless speeches” in the form of banners daily from 1917 to 1918. Many of the NWP’s banners quoted foundational documents, such as the American Constitution, but the most notorious quoted President Woodrow Wilson (Chapman et al., n.d.). Though voiceless speeches did not constitute audible speech, thus seemingly less threatening than oration, their content became dangerous as they reframed Wilson’s voice as a weapon against him. An article in The Washington Post explains that the Silent Sentinels organized themselves by guilds, and even picketed on Sundays in order to work around their employment schedules (“Women ‘wage earners’” Feb. 19, 1917, p. 7). Another article in the New York Times comments that the Sentinels with their banners were “annoying … President [Woodrow Wilson]” as he was “struggling with weighty questions of the greatest moment to the nation” (“HOUSE MOVES” Sept. 25, 1917, p. 11). In the same article, Republican Representative Walsh of Massachusetts refers to the Sentinels as “iron-jawed angels … bewildered, deluded creatures with short skirts and short hair” (qtd. in “HOUSE MOVES” Sept. 25, 1917, p. 11). Even more conservative suffrage organizations such as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), led by Carrie Chapman Catt, denounced the NWP’s demonstrations outside the White House (Amato et al.), in a fate reminiscent of that encountered by UK suffragettes. The plight of the Sentinels is exhibited in the 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels, which depicts the publicity frenzy caused by the Sentinels’ suffrage banners and the consequences for these women (Amato & von Garnier). Sentinels were initially charged of treason, but when this charge was deemed unfounded by the courts, approximately 200 Sentinels were jailed for “obstructing traffic,” receiving sixty-day sentences in the Occoquan workhouse, though individual cases varied (Amato et al.). The NWP used the method of the voiceless speech because it generated attention in the media, and consequently, the NWP was viewed as one of the more radical women’s organizations in terms of tactics (Chapman et al., n.d.).

This mode of communication is showcased in Anne O’Hagan’s contribution to The Sturdy Oak: A Composite Novel of American Politics (1917); here, women use voiceless speech placards in the windows of the building across from candidate George Remington’s office to denounce his candidacy (p. 74). For example, one placard reads: “You believe that ‘WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE HOME.’ Will you enforce the law against woman’s night work in the factories? Over nine hundred women of Whitewater County are doing night work in the munition plants” (O’Hagan, 1917, p. 76). Like the Silent Sentinel banners, the placards quote a politician’s clichéd chivalric speech and the statutes related to women and children and ask him “if [he] mean[s] to proceed against all those who are breaking those laws (O’Hagan, 1917, p. 76).

By quoting the language of their oppressors, suffragists reframed these texts and utterances and put them into a context wherein their fallacies and the failures of American democracy in general could be exposed. In a nation, where ‘free speech’ had much symbolic value, ‘silence’ had powerful currency, all the more so when it contradicted the pervasive cultural stereotype of the talkative (and irrational) woman. Voiceless speeches gave the suffrage movement attention in the media and, whether positive or negative attention, the issues that were brought to light became part of polemical discussion and contributed to the enfranchisement of American women.

Voiceless Speech

Image for suffrage website: it reads “We shall fight for the things which have we have always carried nearest to our hearts—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their government,” President Wilson’s war message. April 2nd, 1917.”


References and Further Reading

Amato, L. (Producer), & von Garnier, K. (Director). (2004). Iron Jawed Angels [Motion  picture]. United States: HBO Films.

Baker, J. H. (Ed.). (2002) Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited:  Viewpoints on American Culture. Oxford U P.
Retrieved from

Chapman, M. & DeLay, J. (Interviewer). The Influence of Literature on the Suffrage  Movement. League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area Podcast. Podcast retrieved from

Chapman, M., & Mills, A. (Eds.). (2011). Treacherous Texts: U.S. Suffrage Literature,  1846-1946. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U P.

HOUSE MOVES FOR WOMAN SUFFRAGE. (25 Sept. 1917. p. 11). New York Times  (1857- 1922).
Retrieved from 14656

O’Hagan, A. (1917). Chapter VII. In E.G. Jordan (Ed.), The Sturdy Oak: A Composite  Novel of American Politics. Athens, OH: Ohio U P. p. 72-84.

Women “wage earners” first Sunday “silent picket” at the white house. (19 Feb. 1917.   p. 7). The Washington Post (1877-1922).
Retrieved from  =14656

Alison Strobel

Alison Strobel

Alison Strobel is an English Honours major at the University of British Columbia.
Alison Strobel

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