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Actions Against Suffragettes Escalate

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Oct 04, 2017

In 1917, as a wartime president, Woodrow Wilson was arguably the most powerful man to ever sit in the Oval Office. He commanded a million-man army. His Congress had rubberstamped a national draft; people who criticized it were sent to prison for treason. He censored movies and newspapers, seized private property, and federal agents spied on residents in Beach Haven.

Despite all that power, a band of women led by a New Jersey Quaker, Alice Paul, defied him by picketing the White House and demanding the passage of a constitutional amendment that would give all U.S. women the right to vote.

At first the administration had ignored the pickets, but in June arrests began for blocking the sidewalk. At first there was no jail time, but in July, some of those arrested were ordered to serve 60 days in the infamous Occoquan, Va., workhouse. Embarrassed by the publicity these actions received, Wilson had ordered the women’s release – but The New York Times of July 20 made an ominous report of the warden’s words as the women left.

“Mr. Whittaker explained afterward that what he had meant in saying that the same consideration could not be shown any other suffragettes that might be sent to Occoquan was that they would not be allowed to spend the greater part of their time in conferences with attorneys and advisers. He said that the parleys which had been conducted almost continually since the militants arrived at Occoquan had had a bad effect on the discipline of the institution. In the future it would be a case of more work and less talking, he promised.”

Still, picketing continued. On Aug. 14, a mob gathered. Doris Stevens was there and later wrote in “Jailed for Freedom” of the scene as a picketer was attacked.

“The mob watched with fascination while she swayed to and fro in her wrestle with two young sailors. And still no attempt by the police to quell the riot. … The climax came when in the late afternoon a bullet was fired through one of the heavy glass windows of the second floor, embedding itself in the ceiling. … Captain Flather of the 1st Precinct, with two detectives, later examined the holes and declared they had been made by a 38 caliber revolver, but no attempt was ever made to find the man who had drawn the revolver.

“Meanwhile eggs and tomatoes were hurled at our fresh banners flying from the flag poles on the building. … But the police looked on while all the banners were destroyed, a few paces from Headquarters. More banners went out – purple, white and gold ones. They, too, were destroyed before they reached the White House.”

Alice Paul issued a statement: “The situation now existing in Washington exists because President Wilson permits it. Orders were first handed down to the police to arrest suffragists. The clamor over their imprisonments made this position untenable. The police were then ordered to protect suffragists. They were then ordered to attack suffragists. They have now been ordered to encourage irresponsible crowds to attack suffragists. No police head would dare so to besmirch his record without orders from his responsible chief. The responsible chief in the National Capital is the President of the United States.”

Stevens continued, “On August 15th the pickets again attempted to take their posts on the line. … On this day one lettered banner and fifty purple, white and gold flags were destroyed by a mob led by sailors in uniform. Alice Paul was knocked down three times by a sailor in uniform and dragged the width of the White House sidewalk in his frenzied attempt to tear off her suffrage sash. … Miss Katherine Morey of Boston was also knocked to the pavement by a sailor, who took her flag and then darted off into the crowd. Miss Elizabeth Stuyvesant was struck by a soldier in uniform and her blouse torn from her body.”

As a result, more women were arrested and sent to the workhouse. The reaction in Congress came from Democratic majority whip Sen. Henry Myers of Montana.

“I wish to say a few words about the bill I have just introduced. It is intended for the enactment of better and more adequate legislation to prevent the infamous, outrageous, scandalous, and, I think, almost treasonable actions that have been going on around the White House for months past, which have been a gross insult to the President of the United States. … I mean the so-called picketing of the White House. These disgusting proceedings have been going on for months, and if there is no adequate law to stop them, I think there ought to be.”

Myers’ bill read, “That when the United States shall be engaged in war it shall be unlawful for any person or persons to carry, hold, wave, exhibit, display, or have in his or her possession in any public road, highway, alley, street, thoroughfare, park, or other public place in the District of Columbia, any banner, flag, streamer, sash, or other device having thereon any words or language with reference to the President or Vice President of the United States, or any words or language with reference to the Constitution of the United States, or the right of suffrage, or right of citizenship.

“That any person committing any foregoing described offense shall, upon conviction thereof, for each offense be fined not less than thirty days or more than one year, or by both such fine and imprisonment.”

As the bill was being debated, women were already in prison, and Stevens was one of them.

“They were kept absolutely incommunicado. They were not allowed to see even their nearest relatives, should any be within reach, until they had been in the institution two weeks. Each prisoner was allowed to write one outgoing letter a month, which, after being read by the warden, could be sent or withheld at his whim. All incoming mail and telegrams were also censored by the Superintendent and practically all of them denied the prisoners. Superintendent Whittaker openly boasted of holding up the suffragists’ mail: ‘I am boss down here,’ he said to visitors who asked to see the prisoners, or to send in a note. ‘I consider letters and telegrams these prisoners get are treasonable. They cannot have them.’”

Slowly word leaked from the workhouse, and a few investigated.

“Senator J. Hamilton Lewis, of Illinois, Democratic whip in the Senate, heard alarming reports of two of his constituents. … He made a hurried trip to the workhouse to see them. The fastidious Senator was shocked – shocked at the appearance of the prisoners, shocked at the tale they told, shocked that ‘ladies’ should be subjected to such indignities. ‘In all my years of criminal practice I have never seen prisoners so badly treated, whether before or after conviction.’”

A former nurse, Lavinia Dock, was inside the workhouse.

“I really thought that I could eat everything, but here I have hard work choking down enough food to keep the life in me. When these and other prisoners were sentenced to prison they were sentenced to detention and not to starvation or semi-starvation. The water they drink is kept in an open pail, from which it is ladled into a drinking cup. The prisoners frequently dip the drinking cup directly into the pail. The same piece of soap is used for every prisoner. As the prisoners in Occoquan are sometimes seriously afflicted with disease, this practice is appallingly negligent.”

The women were still fighting. Secretly they had written a petition and smuggled it out of the workhouse.

“As political prisoners, we, the undersigned, refuse to work while in prison. We have taken this stand as a matter of principle after careful consideration, and from it we shall not recede. This action is a necessary protest against an unjust sentence. In reminding President Wilson of his pre-election promises toward woman suffrage we were exercising the right of peaceful petition, guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. … We ask exemption from prison work, that our legal right to consult counsel be recognized, to have food sent to us from outside, to supply ourselves with writing material for as much correspondence as we may need, to receive books, letters, newspapers, our relatives and friends. … we now wish to bring the important question of the status of political prisoners to the attention of the commissioners, who, we are informed, have full authority to make what regulations they please for the District prison and workhouse.”

According to Stevens, “The Commissioners’ only answer to this was a hasty transfer of the signers and the leader, Miss Burns, to the District Jail, where they were put in solitary confinement. The women were not only refused the privileges asked but were denied some of the usual privileges allowed to ordinary criminals.”

On Oct. 5, 1917, the only woman in Congress, Republican Jeannette Rankin of Montana, called for an investigation.

“Whereas, clerks and employees of the Executive Departments, hundreds of these clerks and employees, acting with sailors, then and now, in the service of the United States Navy and in uniform at the time, and soldiers, then and now in the service of the United States Army, also in their uniforms at the time … and these clerks, employees, sailors, and soldiers, and others, formed themselves into mobs and deliberately, unlawfully and violently damaged the said headquarters and offices of the said woman’s organization by pelting rotten eggs through the doors and windows, shooting a bullet from a revolver through a window, and otherwise damaging said Cameron House, and also violently and unlawfully did strike, choke, drag and generally mistreat and injure and abuse the said women when they came defenseless upon the streets adjoining as well as when they were in the said building …”

Next Week: “I will not eat.”

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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