Sunday, October 10, 2010

One Woman's Fight for Suffrage

There was a time when women were little more than chattel. Women couldn't own property, they were not entitled to their own money, had no voice in politics and were not allowed to vote. We've heard of Carrie Nations and other women who led the fight for women's rights. Alice Paul also took up the cause. She and the ladies who followed her suffered, brutally, for the rights women enjoy today.

Alice Paul was raised as a Quaker, attended Swarthmore College, and worked at the New York College Settlement while attending the New York School of Social Work. She left for England in 1906 to work in the settlement house movement there for three years. She studied at university in England, and returned to get her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (1912).

Alice Paul led the more radical wing of those who were working for women's suffrage in 1917. She had taken part in more militant suffrage activity in England, including hunger strikes that were met with imprisonment and brutal force-feeding methods. She believed that by bringing such militant tactics to America, the public's sympathy would be turned towards those who protested for woman suffrage, and the vote for women would be won, finally, after seven decades of activism.

And so, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and others separated in America from the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), headed by Carrie Chapman Catt, and formed the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU) which in 1917 transformed itself into the National Woman's Party (NWP).

During WWI, these suffragettes planned and carried out a campaign to picket the White House in Washington, DC. The reaction was, as in Britain, strong and swift: arrest of the picketers and their imprisonment. Some were transferred to an abandoned workhouse located at Occoquan, Virginia. There, the women staged hunger strikes, and, as in Britain, were force-fed brutally and otherwise treated violently.

Feminist Sonia Pressman Fuentes documents this history in her article on Alice Paul. She includes this re-telling of the story of Occoquan Workhouse's "Night of Terror," November 15, 1917:

Under orders from W. H. Whittaker, superintendent of the Occoquan Workhouse, as many as forty guards with clubs went on a rampage, brutalizing thirty-three jailed suffragists. They beat Lucy Burns, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head, and left her there for the night. They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed, and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate Alice Cosu, who believed Mrs. Lewis to be dead, suffered a heart attack. According to affidavits, other women were grabbed, dragged, beaten, choked, slammed, pinched, twisted, and kicked. (source: Barbara Leaming, Katherine Hepburn (New York: Crown Publishers, 1995), 182.)

I don't know about you, but I find such brutality, against women, an outrage. Long life the memories of the courageous suffragists who fought for the freedomes women enjoy today.

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