BRANFORD — At midday on a sunny, wind-swept Wednesday, 15 women stood silent, dressed in white, assembled in a circle around the flagpole on the Branford Green.
“The women behind you are dressed as the Silent Sentinels,” state Rep. Robin Comey told the crowd of roughly 100, in a ceremony to commemorate the Centennial Celebration of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which in 1920 afforded white women the right to vote.
The “Picket at the Flagpole,” as organizers dubbed it, was positioned separately from the official ‘Town Gathering,’ which was on the steps of the town hall, among the events held around the nation to mark the occasion.
For two-and-a-half years, Comey said, these women “used silence as a strategic form of protest. They were harassed, arrested, jailed, and tortured with force-feeding and beating for the right to vote.”
Not unlike today, the movement was divided. “Some stood beside them as brothers and sisters, bringing them food and drink,” she said. “Others formed mobs to deter their efforts. Men threw rotten fruit and hurled insults, and the New York Times and other newspapers called them names and condemned their efforts publicly.”
Over by the flagpole, Gaile Ramey, a Branford photographer, stood silent, dressed in white, to recognize the peaceful nature of the Sentinel’s protest. “Their leader, Alice Paul, was trained in the tactics of civil disobedience while involved with the British women’s suffrage movement,” she said after the ceremony.
Upon her return to the United States, “she gave her troops strict instructions to remain nonviolent and also led the practice of going on hunger strikes when imprisoned to protest unfair treatment.”
Instead of holding banners demanding the right to vote, as Paul’s Silent Sentinels did, the 15 Shoreline women held signs reading VOTE, the O and T forming the symbol for a female.
“We are excited to mark this centennial, but not just as a historic remembrance of things past, but also a clarion call to all citizens to defend democracy and participate fully in their government,” speaker Carol Reimers, president of the League of Women Voters of Connecticut, told the crowd.
“We wanted to bring to everyone’s attention at the same time the right to vote is being celebrated, how easily it can be taken away,” said Silent Sentinel organizer Wanda Bubriski, standing alongside a woman with a sign that read Pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
“Never in our lifetimes has our right to vote been more threatened.”
Speaker Roberta Gill-Brooks, Branford’s tax collector, reminded the crowd that black women only secured the legally protected right to vote with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
She noted white suffragettes, “many of them descendants of slaveowners, found it hard to consider black women as being their equal.”
While noting Sen. Kamala Harris’ historic run for vice president, she added that “the fight of black suffragettes stands as a reminder of how black women’s fight for the ballot has been and continues to be about a more fundamental issue —that being access to political power.”
The most senior of the Silent Sentinels, Branford’s Beverly Willis, 92, sat near the back, holding an American flag. A renowned architect who designed, among other structures, the San Francisco Ballet Building, she was one of the only females in her profession when she started, she said.
“Men were dismissive of women then,” she said. “It couldn’t be a good design because it was designed by a woman.”
To smooth the path for younger female architects, she founded, at 75, the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, a non-profit that seeks to change the culture for women in the building industry through research and education.
“It’s not as bad as it once was, but there are still many problems,” she said, as her American flag fluttered in the breeze. “There is still so much work to be done.”