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Cover Story September 11th, 2008

  Untitled Document
cover

edited by lyle e davis

This is the story of our Grandmothers and Great-grandmothers; they lived only 90 years ago. Remember, it was not until 1920 that women were granted the right to go to the polls and vote. The women were innocent and defenseless, but they were jailed nonetheless for picketing the White House, carrying signs asking for the vote.

And by the end of the night, they were barely alive. Forty prison guards wielding clubs and their warden's blessing went on a rampage against the 33 women wrongly convicted of 'obstructing sidewalk traffic.' They beat Lucy Burns, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head and left her hanging for the night, bleeding and gasping for air.

They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed and knocked her out cold. Her cell mate, Alice Cosu, thought Lewis was dead and suffered a heart attack.

Additional affidavits describe the guards grabbing, dragging, beating, choking, slamming, pinching, twisting and kicking the women.

Thus unfolded the 'Night of Terror' on Nov. 15, 1917, when the warden at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia ordered his guards to teach a lesson to the suffragists imprisoned there because they dared to picket Woodrow Wilson's White House for the right to vote. For weeks, the women's only water came from an open pail. Their food--all of it colorless slop--was infested with worms.

When one of the leaders, Alice Paul, embarked on a hunger strike, they tied her to a chair, forced a tube down her throat and poured liquid into her until she vomited. She was tortured like this for weeks until word was smuggled out to the press.

In response to her hunger strike, prison doctors had placed Paul in a psychiatric ward and threatened to transfer her to St. Elizabeths Hospital, an insane asylum. She still refused to eat. Doctors became afraid that she might die, so three times a day for three weeks, they forced a tube down her throat and poured liquids into her stomach. One physician reported that she had "a spirit like Joan of Arc, and it is useless to try to change it. She will die but she will never give up."

The Silent Sentinels were a group of women in favor of women's suffrage organized by Alice Paul to protest in front of the White House during Woodrow Wilson's presidency. The protests started January 10, 1917 and lasted until June 1919 when the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution passed both the House of Representatives and Senate. During those two and a half years, more than a thousand different women picketed every day and night except Sunday.

Newspapers carried stories about how the protesters were being treated. The stories angered some Americans and subsequently created more support for the suffrage amendment. On November 27 and 28, all the protesters were released, including Alice Paul after spending five weeks in prison. Later, in March 1918, the Washington Court of Appeals declared all suffrage arrests, trials, and punishments illegal.

On January 9, 1918, Wilson announced his support of the women's suffrage amendment. The next day, the House of Representatives narrowly passed the amendment but the Senate refused to even debate it until October. When the Senate voted on the amendment in October, it failed by two votes. And in spite of the ruling by the Washington Court of Appeals, arrests of White House protesters resumed on August 6, 1918.

To keep up the pressure, on December 16, 1918, protesters started burning Wilson's words in watch fires in front of the White House. On February 9, 1919, the protesters burned Wilson's image in effigy at the White House.

On another front, the National Woman's Party, led by Paul, urged citizens to vote against anti-suffrage senators up for election in the fall of 1918. After the 1918 election, most members of Congress were pro-suffrage. On May 21, 1919, the House of Representatives passed the amendment, and 2 weeks later on June 4, the Senate finally followed. With their work done in Congress, the protesters turned their attention to getting the states to ratify the amendment.

It was ratified on August 18, 1920, upon its ratification by Tennessee, the thirty-sixth state to do so. The final state to ratify it was Mississippi, who voted in favor of the amendment 64 years later, in 1984.

So, refresh my memory. Some women won't vote this year because - - why, exactly? We have carpool duties? We have to get to work? Our vote doesn't matter? It's raining?

Last week, I went to a sparsely attended screening of HBO's new movie 'Iron Jawed Angels.' It is a graphic depiction of the battle these women waged so that I could pull the curtain at the polling booth and have my say. I am ashamed to say I needed the reminder.

All these years later, voter registration is still my passion. But the actual act of voting had become less personal for me, more rote. Frankly, voting often felt more like an obligation than a privilege. Sometimes it was inconvenient. My friend Wendy, who is my age and studied women's history, saw the HBO movie, too. When she stopped by my desk to talk about it, she looked angry. She was--with herself. 'One thought kept coming back to me as I watched that movie,' she said. 'What would those women think of the way I use, or don't use, my right to vote? All of us take it for granted now, not just younger women, but those of us who did seek to learn.' The right to vote, she said, had become valuable to her 'all over again.'

HBO released the movie on video and DVD . I wish all history, social studies and government teachers would include the movie in their curriculum. I want it shown on Bunco and Bingo night, too, and anywhere else women gather. I realize this isn't our usual idea of socializing, but we are not voting in the numbers that we should be, and I think little shock therapy is in order.

It is jarring to watch Woodrow Wilson and his cronies try to persuade a psychiatrist to declare Alice Paul insane so that she could be permanently institutionalized. And it is inspiring to watch the doctor refuse. Alice Paul was strong, he said, and brave. That didn't make her crazy. The doctor admonished the men: 'Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.'

Please, if you are so inclined, pass this on to all the women you know. We need to get out and vote and use this right that was fought so hard for by these very courageous women. Whether you vote democratic, republican or independent party - remember to vote.

History is being made.

•••••

Author is of the original, unedited essay is unknown.

Sources:
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/suffrage/nwp/tactics.html
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/suffrage/nwp/brftime3.html
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/suffrage/nwp/prisoners.pdf

 

 

 

 

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