“Without Extinction is Liberty”

Without extinction is Liberty! without retrograde is Equality!
They live in the feelings of young men, and the best women;
Not for nothing have the indomitable heads of the earth
been always ready to fall for Liberty.

from Walt Whitman’s “As I Sat Alone by Blue Ontario’s Shores”

One of the most famous and successful campaigns in the history of American civic protest is celebrating its centennial this year. Organized by suffragist leader Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party, the “Silent Sentinels” began their vigil outside the White House gates on January 1917, maintaining their presence there every day but Sundays for the next two and a half years — until the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed and women across America had the vote. The Silent Sentinel picket is regarded as the first organized protest conducted at the White House.

Some 2,000 arrived from across the nation to take Sentinel shifts, each of them given a pin inscribed “Without Extinction Is Liberty,” from Whitman’s poem. Aware that their actions were not only controversial but potentially dangerous, the women were committed to an orderly, placards-only presence. At first, President Woodrow Wilson seemed merely bemused, his only response to “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?” a tip of the hat or an invitation to tea (always refused). But after the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, the placards began to ask “Kaiser Wilson” how he dared call for liberty in Germany yet refuse to grant it at home, provoking antagonistic, pro-Wilson onlookers to disrupt and harass the suffragists. Taking these disturbances as their justification, the police began arresting the Sentinels for “obstruction of traffic,” punishable by fine or jail time (jail always chosen).

The Silent Sentinel protest reached a crisis point on October 20, 1917, when Alice Paul herself was arrested, imprisoned, and, when she refused to eat, force-fed. In Alice Paul: Claiming Power, J. D. Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry profile a woman who “became the soul and guiding spirit of the final years of the American suffrage movement” because she “publicly held politicians’ feet to the fire” and “made suffrage ‘cool,’ at least for the young and the young at heart.” A week after Paul’s arrest, 20,000 women marched through the streets of New York, carrying their own Silent Sentinel placards. The march and the escalating mistreatment of the imprisoned Sentinels soon had Wilson backed into a corner, and on January 9, 1918 — on the eve of the first anniversary the Silent Sentinels setting up their White House protest — he announced his endorsement of the Nineteenth Amendment.

In The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, Dava Sobel tells the fascinating story of how, even as the suffragists were marching and protesting for equality, some women were quietly gaining it. From inception, the Harvard Observatory hired women as “human computers,” charged with processing astronomical data. Annie Jump Cannon, a member of Paul’s National Women’s Party, was one of the Harvard women who went far beyond a processing role, earning international recognition for devising classification systems and observational principles still in use today. One of Cannon’s colleagues was Williamina Fleming, a Scottish immigrant and single mother who went from being a maid in the household of Edward Charles Pickering, director of the Harvard Observatory, to such eminence that she was asked to speak at the Congress on Astronomy and Astrophysics at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. “While we cannot maintain that in everything woman is man’s equal,” said Fleming in her talk, “yet in many things her patience, perseverance and method make her his superior.”

As told in Nathalia Holt’s Rise of the Rocket Girls and Margot Lee Shetterley’s Hidden Figures, a new generation of female human computers made similarly pioneering contributions to the aeronautics industry during and after World War II. The African-American math whizzes of Hidden Figures were forced to fight for equality on two fronts, given that they were segregated in their own building. Their achievement, says Shetterley in her Epilogue, offers encouragement to those who might otherwise “look into the national mirror to see no reflection at all, no discernible fingerprint on what is considered history with a capital H”:

There’s something about this story that seems to resonate with people of all races, ethnicities, genders, ages, and backgrounds. It’s a story of hope, that even among some of our country’s harshest realities — legalized segregation, racial discrimination — there is evidence of the triumph of meritocracy, that each of us should be allowed to rise as far as our talent and hard work can take us.