On June 28, 1917, two members of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), Iris Calderhead and Elizabeth Stuyvesant, rolled a protest banner into a newspaper and entered the new United States National Museum. As Smithsonian staff and invited guests, including President Woodrow Wilson, prepared to celebrate the unveiling of a statue of the Irish patriot and Romantic hero Robert Emmet, Calderhead and Stuyvesant were preparing to stage their own event. The banner they carried with them, meant for President Wilson, read:
MR. PRESIDENT: Why be a liberal abroad and a conservative at home? Why advocate freedom for Irish men and deny freedom to American women? Why laud past struggles for freedom, and suppress the struggle for freedom at your gates?
The suffrage leaders never unfurled their message. Police detectives recognized Stuyvesant, and insisted they give up their banner or leave. When the women refused, detectives took them to police headquarters. According to Calderhead in a piece she wrote for The Suffragist, her father’s status as a former member of the House of Representatives was enough to secure their release. However, less than a week later, both women participated in protests in front of the White House on July 4th that led to their arrest. Rather than pay a twenty-five-dollar fine for obstructing traffic, both women, along with ten other suffragists, served three days in prison.
This is the first instance of a suffrage protest occurring at the Smithsonian that I have found. I’ll keep looking for more. In the meantime, you can visit the Robert Emmet statue to contemplate the multiple struggles for freedom it represents. The statue is on long-term loan to the National Park Service and is located in Robert Emmet Memorial Park at 1700 24th St NW, Washington, DC 20008.
- Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1917, Biodiversity Heritage Library
- Iris Calderhead, “A Police Department Farce: How the District Guardians Discriminate Against Women Fighting for Democracy,” The Suffragist, vol. v, no. 76, 1917.
- “Biographical Sketch of Iris Calderhead,” Online Biographical Dictionary of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920