The Silent Sentinel

Arrested for picketing the White House

Anita Pollitzer was a women’s rights activist and leader of the suffragette movement of the early 20th century. Anita was instrumental in the passage of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting American women the long-denied right to vote in 1920.

Born in 1894 in Charleston SC, her parents were Eastern European Jews whose family fled the old country because of anti-semitism. Anita’s keen intellect and creative mind were evident at an early age, as was her charismatic personality. She was raised in a traditional Jewish home and as a teenager taught Sunday school at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, the oldest continually active congregation in America.

After graduating from high school, Anita moved to New York to attend Teacher’s College, where she majored in art education and became friends with photographer Georgia O’Keeffe. When Anita saw some of her friend’s charcoal drawings in 1915, she was so impressed that she took them to her friend gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz and O’Keeffe later married and became one of the most famous artistic power couple in American history.

Anita wrote a book about her friendship with O’Keeffe, A Woman on Paper, that wasn’t published until 1988, long after both women were deceased. Book reviewer Lynne Bundesen said, “it is a book that tells you that the voices of the most independent, far-seeing women of the times, the pioneers of women’s rights and visions talked to each other as gushing, enthusiastic, eager and confused schoolgirls straight out of the Victorian era – as they may not have talked with their men.”

Around this time, Anita became involved with the movement for women’s suffrage. Incredibly, seventy years after Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Women’s Rights Convention in 1848, American women were still unable to exercise the most basic right in a democracy – the right to vote. Anita joined the National Women’s Party (NWP), a political organization formed in 1916 to fight for women’s suffrage. Anita became a party organizer, traveling all over the United States to advocate for her cause. Her friendliness, charm, and reasoned yet passionate arguments for her cause helped create a groundswell of support among both women and men for a constitutional amendment to guarantee women’s right to vote. She spoke to everyday Americans, as well as state legislators and was very successful in bringing her cause to the forefront of public conversation.

In 1917, Anita was a leader of the Silent Sentinels, also known as the Sentinals of Liberty, a group of women from the NWP who picketed outside the White House to protest President Woodrow Wilson’s lack of support for suffrage. They held signs saying “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty” and “What will you do for woman suffrage.” This vigil lasted two and a half years, through blizzards and heat waves, and pioneered the “silent protest” activism strategy. During this time, the women were constantly harassed, insulted, bullied. Anita, a visible leader of the movement, was arrested but remained undeterred from her mission.

The protests worked. By 1918, President Wilson supported the federal amendment. It still had to pass Congress, and Anita became a feminist legend when she befriended Congressman Harry Burn of Tennessee and convinced him to cast the deciding vote for the amendment, which passed in 1920, enfranchising 26 million American women.

Anita married press agent Elie Edson in 1928 and they lived in New York together for almost fifty years. Elie encouraged his wife’s activism, and after the 19th amendment passed, Anita continued working with the NWP. She lobbied legislators to pass laws ensuring women’s property rights and ban unfair salary practices. Anita traveled to Europe to use her experience to help women there organize for equal rights.

Elie died in 1971, and soon after Anita suffered a stroke from which she never recovered. Anita Pollitzer passed away four years later in New York City.

For her passionate work to enfranchise 26 million American women, we honor Anita Pollitzer as this week’s Thursday Hero.

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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