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Looking back to 1917Posted Tuesday, September 23, 2008, at 7:43 AM
How dare they?? The year was 1917, and Woodrow Wilson was President of the U.S. Several courageous women moved outside the comfortable confines of their homes to demonstrate for the right to vote. The results were appalling.
I remember being shocked when I read "To Kill a Mockingbird," an autobiographical story which took place around 1935, and realized that women weren't allowed on juries during that period of time.
It's been a struggle, and I don't know if I could have done what these trailblazing women did "back in the day..."
The women in the photo were our grandmothers and great-grandmothers; they lived only 91 years ago. It was not until 1920 that women were granted the right to go to the polls and vote. Like many other causes through the centuries, the struggle wasn't easy.
Women during that period were wives and mothers with no experience in political organizing. They came forward, innocent and unprepared for the fury that would be unleashed on them. I look through the old photographs and am impressed by the calm and serenity in their faces, when I consider the horrible things which happened to them.
On the "Night of Terror," November 15, 1917, 33 women were jailed for picketing the White House, carrying signs asking for the vote. By the end of the night, they were fighting for their lives.
With the approval of their warden, forty prison guards wielding clubs went on a rampage against the women, who were accused 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. Alice Cosu, Dora's cell mate, 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, as their ordeal stretched into weeks.
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 February and March of 1919, just one year before women won the right to vote, 26 of the women who were imprisoned on that awful night in November, 1917, gathered together to tour the country on a cross-country speaking tour called the "Prison Special." Their stories describing their experiences as political prisoners must have had an important effect on their listeners, as the law was passed the next year.
An HBO movie entitled "Iron-Jawed Angels" is being released on video and DVD and is being described as "a graphic depiction of the battle these women waged."
I haven't yet seen the film, but one reviewer says, "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's quote is indicative of those early years of the women's rights movement: "Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity."
Here are some links if you're interested in reading more about this topic:
We have an election coming up soon. No matter how you vote - This story is a good reminder of why we should make the effort to do so.
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Madeline (Giles) DeJournett is the Advance writer for the North Stoddard Countian. A retired high school English/history teacher, she spent 32 years teaching in 5 schools in Missouri and Alaska. These days, she lives quietly with a menagerie of wild and domestic animals on 52 secluded acres in the remote Tillman hills south of Advance. She graduated from Dexter High School in 1960 and Southeast Missouri State in 1964. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.