Saturday, August 26, 2006

A Debt We Owe.

On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was certified as having been ratified, and signed into law.

Three years earlier, in October, 1917, Alice Paul was sentenced to seven months in the D.C. Jail for obstructing traffic on sidewalks. She and other suffragists had been picketing the White House, protesting for the right to vote, which they had started to do in January. Other women had been arrested on similar charges, starting in June and July. Some were sent along with Paul to the D.C. Jail. Many were sent to the dreaded Occoquan Workhouse for Women in Virginia.

Once in jail, Paul and the other inmates were subject to horrific conditions. The suffragists were quite isolated -- it was even difficult for the women's lawyers to get in to see them (sound familiar?). That the women claimed to be political prisoners made their jailers treat them with even more brutal contempt. The near-starvation diet weakened them to the point of collapse.

The women began a hunger strike. As is usually the case, all that a hunger strike results in is the force-feeding of the inmates. (See also Guantanamo Bay, although it appears that at least at first the force-feeding of inmates at Gitmo may have been more humane than the treatment meted out to the suffragists.)

When she still refused to end her hunger strike, Paul was threatened with a being moved into the jail's psyciatric ward, and then on to St. Elizabeth's Hospital, the government's insane asylum (a truly frightening prospect). When Paul still refused to start eating, she was moved to a tiny cell in the jail's psychiatric ward, where she was kept even though the resident "alienist" (i.e., shrink) said she was not insane. In the psychiatric ward, Paul was subject to sleep-deprivation: a bright light was shone in her face every hour at night. (Torture isn't a new concept in America, unfortunately.)

On the night of November 14, 1917, warden W.H. Whittaker of Occoquan decided to make an example of the suffragists, and sent guards through the prison beating and brutalizing the women. Lucy Burns, who in June had the distinction of being the first suffragist arrested (when she got three days in jail -- she was subsequently arrested for longer sentences), was handcuffed to the bars of her cell all night, with her arms above her head. Dora Lewis was thrown into an iron bed so hard she passed out; her cellmate Alice Cosu believed her dead and had a heart attack.

A few days after the "Night of Terror," many of the women appeared the Alexandria, Virginia courtroom for the U.S. Court of Appeals. The women bore the marks of their recent experiences on them, a fact which was heavily reported in the press. Some of the women were so weak that they could barely stand. The judge ordered the immediate transfer of the women in Occoquan to the Washington Jail pending review of their case. Three days later, the women were released -- no explanations, no apologies.

Not at all surprisingly, the Court of Appeals later overturned their convictions.

Women continue to protest in front of the White House and Congress through 1918. They continued to be arrested, and undergo hunger strikes. Public opinion started shifting, and the 1918 mid-term elections resulted in a pro-sufferage Congress and the passage of the 19th Amendment.

You might want to mention this little-known episode in American history the next time someone says that it's "too much trouble" to vote, or "the candidates are alike, why bother?" The memory of Alice Paul and the women of the Occoquan Workhouse deserves it.


  1. I just linked to both these posts. Thanks. I've been behind on reading and the celebration would have slid right past me.


  2. Thanks for sharing this important piece of history!