Nearly a century after American and British women got the right to vote, the suffragists who secured those victories still inspire.

In recent months, women in Iran, for example, have been openly protesting laws forcing women to wear the hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering, in public. Videos and stories portraying the violence done to these protesters by Iran’s self-proclaimed “morality police” have shocked the Iranian people and the world.

Sepia photo of woman standing at White House gate holding a sign in 1917 (© American Photo Archive/Alamy)
One of the Silent Sentinels at the White House, 1917 (© American Photo Archive/Alamy)

“The parallel is that women here [in the U.S] and in England went public with their protests and were brutalized, arrested and jailed,” just like the women in Iran, said Mary Walton, author of A Woman’s Crusade, about women’s fight for the vote in the U.S. In jail and immediately upon release, the suffragists continued their protests, she said.

Into the 20th century, governments around the world withheld the right of women to vote. In the United States, Alice Paul and her fellow suffragists in 1917 built on the work of pioneering suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and took the unprecedented step of picketing the White House. They called themselves the Silent Sentinels and stood guard holding large signs with slogans such as “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”

Although they stood still and silent, their vigil drew ridicule and abuse from crowds that gathered to taunt them. Eventually, the women were arrested for obstructing sidewalk traffic. In prison the suffragists were subjected to force-feeding and humiliation. After they were released, many of the suffragists immediately returned to the White House to protest.

Reports of the treatment of the suffragists in the newspapers began to sway public opinion. “Americans didn’t think women should be treated that way,” Walton said. “They also recognized their courage and they recognized they were not going to abandon the struggle for the vote. A wave of sympathy began to build for them.”

The Silent Sentinels’ protest lasted for two years and four months. Their protest ended the day in 1919 that both the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote the following year.

“The lesson is,” Walton said, “you just don’t give up. You just keep on keeping on.”

Iranian women show no signs of giving up either. For her own safety, Iranian activist Masih Alinejad works to end the enforced hijab from outside her native country. Her online movement, My Stealthy Freedom, posts images of Iranian women not wearing a hijab.

“The authorities are watching me, and my campaign, because they know how powerful it is that ordinary women are protesting,” Alinejad told The Guardian, a British daily newspaper. “We’re like the suffragettes. We’re risking breaking the law for something we absolutely know is right.”