On the tenth of February I found myself in a more improbable place than I had imagined even just a few days before I travelled to the other Washington. I stood in front of the wrought iron gates of the White House with a dear friend, the mother of an Evergreen alumnus, as she prepared to record me reading poetry that I have written in response to the horrific daily onslaught of wrong-doings perpetuated by what attempts poorly to pass as the Executive Branch of our Federal government.
I stood in protest of our government. As evidenced by the perpetual, salacious blathering of the forty-fifth president, the henchmen and henchwomen who rally around his fake news, the uninformed and reactionary decisions that place so many of the most vulnerable people in our country at further economic and personal risk, an ill-conceived and unconstitutional ban on immigration that rallied tens of thousands to airports and state houses, unprecedented attacks designed to disarm the press, and diplomatic guffaws of global consequence, this government is neither of the people nor for the people.
Exercising both freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, I stood in front of that all too white house along the same stretch of fence that Alice Paul and the other suffragists who came to be known as the Silent Sentinels stood one-hundred years ago. The National Women’s Party’s infamous acts of civil disobedience, which began in January of 1917, are recorded as the first formal protest at the White House in United States history. Paul and members of her Party sought to persuade President Woodrow Wilson and other leading democrats to support women’s right to vote. The daily protests went on for over two years and eventually led to daily arrests, imprisonment, hunger strikes, and the force-feeding of some of the suffragists. Finally in June of 1919 the Senate passed the suffrage amendment. One by one the states ratified the amendment until August of 1920 when Tennessee put the margin over the top in.
In 2004 Hilary Swank portrayed Paul and her role in the movement in the Oscar-nominated film Iron-Jawed Angels.
Standing in front of that imposing barricade, I was reminded of the fence in New York City that young women impaled themselves upon in 1911 as they as they jumped from the upper stories of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and its deplorable working conditions. On the streets passersby watched in horror as young women in billowy petticoats unknowingly leapt from one gruesome death onto another.
Women have a history with wrought iron fences and that history was not lost on me as I stood in the bone-chilling air that Friday afternoon reading my poems. I read “In Case of Post-Election Emergency” and “Inauguration” as well as an essay on inaugural poetry (which was published in last month’s issue of Works in Progress) to no one in particular and everyone within view. Some stopped to listen; some took photos; some, ignoring me completely, talked over me as I read; a few heckled. But no one, including the police who were perched outside the gate, requested that I stop. I stood for well over an hour and with exposed and freezing hands I read aloud the words that I needed someone to hear and understand that I, along with millions of others both locally and globally, am using my words to resist, to persist, to rise.
Sandra Yannone is a poet, educator, and antique dealer in Olympia. She is a Member of the Faculty and Director of the Writing Center at The Evergreen State College.