One hundred years ago this month, the National Woman’s Party sent silent sentries out to stand in front of the White House gates.

Holding banners draped with their signature colors — purple, white and gold — their purpose was to call attention to the fact that (incredibly) most women in the United States still did not have the right to vote. National Woman’s Party leader Alice Paul and her supporters wanted Congress and the president to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women voting rights, rather than leaving it up to the states to decide.

At first reporters treated them with condescension. “How cute,” they said, in effect, “the little ladies are trying to bother the president, but he has more important business and they should just go back home where they belong.”

As the country prepared to enter World War I the activists stepped it up, bringing signs with printed messages that berated President Woodrow Wilson for protecting democracy abroad while refusing to recognize women’s legitimate demand for democracy at home.

America was a scary place in those days. The inflammatory messages printed on the banners enraged onlookers, who attacked the brave women and tore the signs from their hands as the police stood by with orders not to intervene.

By June 1917 , Washington, D.C., police were arresting the National Woman’s Party picketers and throwing them in the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, a clear violation of their rights under both the First Amendment and the Clayton Act, which Congress had passed in 1914 and which guaranteed the right of peaceful picketing.

Few voices rose in protest. America was at war, and if civil liberties had to be trampled to support the war effort, then so be it. Congress passed the Espionage Act in 1917 and amended it with the Sedition Act in 1918 to further restrict free speech. Those who raised their voices against the war and conscription, including Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs, were jailed. Big business saw the opportunity to rid themselves of troublesome union leaders; radicals, including members of the International Workers of the World, were especially targeted.

But it wasn’t just the war. In 1917 it was illegal to send information about birth control through the mail, or to speak about birth control publicly. In many states it was illegal for doctors to prescribe birth control for women unless they there was medical necessity.

And forget about abortions. Women of means could generally find a sympathetic doctor to help them, but poor women were sentenced to forced birthing, even if they couldn’t afford to support their growing number of children. And there was no national welfare system, or Obamacare, or public housing to help them out.

I’m struck by the parallels to 2017. Now we have President-elect Donald Trump threatening to sue the media, and conservative billionaires financing lawsuits that bankrupt news outlets, all to create a chilling effect on free speech.

Here in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage threatened to withhold funds from a nonprofit, desperate for funds to serve youth in need, if they hired his political rival as executive director. LePage won that round; free speech lost.

Now conservative Republicans in Congress are falling over themselves to defund Planned Parenthood, which would deprive millions of low-income women and men access to affordable, professional health care and birth control. It feels as if we’re spinning backward in time to the bad old days of 1917. Women’s right to choose not just to end an unwanted pregnancy, but whether to get pregnant at all, is under attack once again.

To ward off despair, I remind myself that the National Woman’s Party sued the District of Columbia over the illegal arrests and imprisonment, and won. Now, as Trump’s inauguration looms, the Woman’s March on Washington is a signal to him, to his administration, and to Congress that we won’t be silenced, and that we’ll use our free speech rights, our skills, our passion and, ultimately, our votes to prevent them from dismantling the protections that our foremothers — and fathers — fought so hard to achieve.

Anne Gass is a resident of Gray.

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