As Utah absorbs the impact of Sen. Mitt Romney’s vote against President Trump, it might be a good time to remember some of the earlier protests from Utahns that were once unpopular and are viewed much more favorably now.
The most striking examples of the public changing its view of a protest movement are from the civil rights era in the 1960s. But Utah can point to earlier protests that were roundly condemned at the time, and are now seen as heroic.
The Deseret News has launched a new podcast, “Zion’s Suffragists,” to tell the story of Utah women pioneering voting rights in the United States, often in the face of scorn and open hostility.
In the 1910s, the country had accepted that a few Western states allowed women to vote, while the states in the East did not. Millions of women watched silently as election after election came and went, where only the women in the West could vote.
Congress showed no interest in rewriting the Constitution for women’s suffrage. President Woodrow Wilson thought women’s voting rights were best left to the states.
Utahns wanted this to change. And by the 1910s there were women who were ready to put their lives on the line for voting rights for all.
“Nothing was happening, and they were fed up,” said Utah historian Rebekah Clark. A few Utah women joined one of the most aggressive and shocking protests for women’s suffrage to date. “They begin holding protests in front of the White House, to protest that Woodrow Wilson hadn’t done anything for suffrage,” Clark said.
Utahns Lavern Robertson and Minnie Quay joined picket lines in front of the White House, holding large white banners with black lettering.
“MR. PRESIDENT, HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?” asked one banner. “KAISER WILSON,” said another banner, “20,000,000 AMERICAN WOMEN ARE NOT SELF-GOVERNED. TAKE THE BEAM OUT OF YOUR OWN EYE.”
The protests in front of the White House continued for almost two and a half years, from Jan. 10, 1917, to June 4, 1919. Almost 2,000 women took turns standing as “silent sentinels” outside the White House, six days a week — sometimes in freezing rain, sometimes under the blazing Washington, D.C., summer sun.
They were standing out in the cold for the rest of the women of America.
President Wilson would often close his eyes as he rode past the women. Occasionally, he would tip his hat.
These protests were extremely unpopular. The United States was fighting in World War I, and many viewed the protests as treason against the president during a time of war. Some passersby would spit on them, or throw food on them.
“These suffragists — a hundred years ago — were the first to introduce this form of protest,” Clark said.
The two Utahns who we know participated in this controversial picketing were both married, and were both already enfranchised. They were standing out in the cold for the rest of the women of America.
Minnie Quay was in her 50s, and had a long history of supporting suffrage. As a young adult, she had visited her older sister in Wyoming and allegedly stayed a year just so she could vote.
Lovern Robertson was in her 30s, and the mother of three boys.
President Wilson soon grew tired of the women standing at his front gate, and the Capitol police arrested them.
“Minne and Lovern were among the protesters who were subjected to what’s been called the ‘night of terror,’” Clark said. “The warden ordered the guards to mistreat the women, to teach them a lesson. There were beatings. Women were hospitalized.”
Alice Paul, the leader of the protests, went on a hunger strike. She was force-fed multiple times, a violent act that broke her teeth.
Minnie Quay said they were threatened with gags, and told they would be tied to whipping posts. The guards threatened to shoot them.
When the newspapers began publishing accounts of their mistreatment, public opinion changed.
Minnie Quay and Lovern Robertson returned to Utah, where their actions in Washington were met with mixed opinions. The Woman’s Democratic Club of Utah terminated Minnie’s membership, because of her protests against a Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson. And the Utah Council of Women publicly denounced her.
But Minnie Quay’s and Lovern Robertson’s husbands were both supportive of their wives’ protests, and proud of their fearlessness.
President Wilson soon reversed course, and publicly announced his support of an amendment to the Constitution for women’s suffrage. By 1919, Congress had written and passed an amendment. And by 1920, two-thirds of the states had ratified it.
The type of civil disobedience that Quay and Robertson pioneered was soon declared legal.
“It paved the way for generations of protestors to protest in front of the White House,” Clark said. The sidewalk has become one of the most iconic public forums in America, where people express their views directly to the chief executive.
Public opinion usually swings dramatically in favor of people who protest for civil rights, but sometimes it takes a while.
In a 1966 Gallup survey, 63% of Americans had a negative opinion of Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, just 4% of Americans have a negative opinion of him.
Perhaps Sen. Romney can take comfort in knowing that just because an act of protest against the status quo is unpopular today doesn’t mean it will always be.