Phoebe Munnecke:  A “Firebrand” Ahead of her Times

By Kristina Bilowus

As WLAM celebrates 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment this month, we are reminded of one of our own suffragettes who eventually became President of our organization. Phoebe Munnecke was the youngest of four children, born into a family that prioritized education.[1] Prior to becoming an attorney, Phoebe was a suffragette and vice president of her husband’s contracting business. She became a member of the National Women’s Party (NWP) and advocated for a nationwide constitutional amendment providing women the right to vote. Phoebe served as the Chair of the Michigan section of the NWP and became a “Silent Sentinel.”

Silent Sentinels were suffragettes who would stand outside the White House in silence, holding banners and signs protesting the lack of support given to the right to vote from the Woodrow Wilson administration. Additionally, various speeches of President Wilson that dealt with liberty and democracy were burned by the suffragettes. For the Silent Sentinels, such speeches were ludicrous as women (who represented half the population) were not afforded the same liberties and rights as men.  On January 5, 1919, Phoebe was arrested for participating in a speech burning event. She and several other women were sentenced to either pay fines or to labor in a workhouse. Phoebe chose labor and promptly went on a hunger strike. Her sentence was commuted as she became ill and was in danger of being force fed.[2] That summer, the 19th Amendment passed.

Phoebe continued her efforts in support of women and education, graduating from law school in 1922.  She promptly joined WLAM along with other notable bar associations. She worked with various prominent organizations lobbying for equality between the sexes. Most notably, she helped work in advancing progressive legislation for her times as she assisted in the early stages of what became known as the Equal Rights Amendment. From 1938-1939, Phoebe served as the President of WLAM.

As a testament to her legacy, Phoebe encouraged future congress women Martha Griffiths to run for office.[3] As we celebrate 100 years with continuing advancement, by women and for women, we honor the extraordinary women like Phoebe who helped us get here.

[1] Sharlow, Carrie, Michigan Lawyers in History, 91 Mich B J 9 (2018).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.