Known for its raucous activism, the Women’s Political Union (WPU) developed a provocative new strategy in the fall of 1912: silence. In the window of a Manhattan storefront, suffragists presented and then discarded placards, one by one, for crowds of onlookers. The placards rested on easels, bearing bold, black letters that spelled out arguments for women’s right to vote. The WPU dubbed these silent displays “voiceless speeches.”
Much of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States had already adopted public performance to garner support and publicity. From street parades to outdoor rallies to vaudeville shows, suffragists made spectacles of themselves. Although voiceless speeches departed from the usual pageantry, they too commanded large audiences—proving there could be spectacle in silence.
That the WPU chose a storefront as the site for silent protest is significant. White, middle-class suffragists had long written about the emancipatory potential of consumerism. Beginning in the 1870s, some pointed to domestic products that freed women from housework—appliances like the vacuum cleaner and electric iron gave housewives more time for leisure or, better yet, more time for political activism. Others explicitly yoked political rights to women’s purchasing power, invoking the battle cry of the American Revolution: no taxation without representation. Another contingent claimed that shrewd shopping habits made women uniquely qualified for the vote.
No matter their reasoning, virtually all suffragist groups had appropriated certain principles of mass consumerism by the turn of the twentieth century. Manufacturers and retailers bombarded consumers with flashy, inescapable billboards, window displays, print advertisements, and newly invented neon signage. Likewise, parades and protests on major boulevards made suffragists impossible to ignore, while eye-catching banners, sandwich boards, and shirt pins sold the cause. But amidst such a panoply of sight and sound, it was silence that cut through the noise.
Practical considerations informed the turn to silence, at least in part. As scholar Mary Chapman writes, “Silent suffrage stunts were designed primarily to evade early twentieth-century legal and cultural proscriptions against women’s public speaking.” Suffragists participating in open-air speeches and rallies faced condemnation from opponents and supporters alike. Their objection? Loud, boisterous protest violated behavioral expectations for women in public. Worse still, authorities frequently quashed suffrage demonstrations on grounds that such displays could erupt into riots—even if activists had secured formal permits.
Voiceless speeches promised suffragists a more receptive audience, and allowed them to avoid interference from police. For those very reasons, a storefront on a busy city street served as an ideal platform. It promised an audience, and required permission only from a sympathetic shopkeeper, rather than potentially hostile state officials. Perhaps most important, storefronts were public spaces socially accepted as “feminine.” Suffragists could make an argument about women’s political subordination without wholly rejecting gender norms popularly held. Soon after the WPU piloted silent spectacle in New York City, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) followed suit, finding the form of protest to be in “insistent demand” throughout the country.
Although suffragists developed voiceless speech in response to popular criticism and official sanctions, such understated demonstrations did not amount to capitulation. Rather, silent spectacle represented a subversive challenge to nineteenth-century domestic ideology, which sought to confine women of purported middle-class gentility to the home. A contradiction in terms, a voiceless speech embodied the paradox of urban life for the modern woman. On one hand, she held power in a consumer culture; on the other, she was denied a political voice. Silent spectacle offered her an opportunity to harness one power to agitate for another.
Consider this undated photograph (above) of a voiceless speech, likely taken in 1913. A suffragist stood to the right of a vertical banner, her mouth a firm, defiant line. “What’s sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose,” read the banner. Two geese hovered over the utilitarian idiom, implying the same standards ought to apply equally to male and female. The gander had sole access to a bowl, its contents labeled “Votes.” Meanwhile, the goose stood nearby, head hung low, excluded from what was rightfully hers. The power of the banner lay in its simplicity. It exposed women’s repression through a clear appeal to basic fairness.
For her part, the suffragist faced the street, capitalizing on a built-in audience of pedestrians. Not a mannequin or set of knickknacks, but a living person met the gaze of passers-by, producing precisely the kind of shock needed to captivate the attention of those otherwise indifferent or opposed to the cause. Though the suffragist remained silent, she spoke volumes—her hands turning over each card, her body positioned for the camera and the audience, her resolute expression on display. But even while she lay claim to public space and a public audience, her silence underscored the literal effect of women’s second-class citizenship.
At her side, placards rested on an easel, with messages written in the crisp lettering of an advertisement. Each turn to a new card became an exercise in repetitive messaging. The placard captured in this particular photograph cited a political gain. Three million women vote now in TEN States and in Alaska territory.” Upon closer inspection, however, the word “three” appears to have been doctored. Sometime after the photograph was taken, someone scraped that portion down to the paper, writing over the blank space. Notice too a handwritten note at the bottom of the photograph: “Stationed in shop window. She turns the pages.” The photograph comes directly from the private collection of NAWSA leader Carrie Chapman Catt. She, or a secretary under her direction, likely altered it.
While it is difficult to say for sure why someone decided to modify the image, that they did so at all speaks to the photograph’s potential reach. After all, why bother altering a picture that few would see? The alteration suggests yet another way that silence resonated in an era of mass consumption. Photography allowed activists to spread their message to those unable to witness protests in person but eager to partake in the spectacle.
The suffrage movement concluded with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment nearly one hundred years ago, but the use of silence as a form of protest remains as relevant as ever. Consider the March for Our Lives rally held in Washington, D.C. during March 2018. Before a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people, activist Emma Gonzalez fell silent for a portion of a speech that would ultimately last six minutes and twenty seconds—the amount of time it took a gunman to murder seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Before that, a number of NFL players made headlines for their protests against the brutal treatment experienced by people of color at the hands of police. Choosing to kneel or sit or raise their fists during the national anthem that precedes all football games, these players have creatively refashioned the silence expected of them to expand their public platforms beyond the football field. That these contemporary examples are so numerous and so publicized illustrates the persistent resonance of silence in an age filled with noise.