Turning points in history are not about a single act: they are a culmination of smaller conflicts and injustices building upon each other. The political powder keg keeps being filled higher and higher until the right flashpoint sets it off. Women’s suffrage was a conflict that had been building since the foundation of the United States, a country whose “Declaration of Independence” was based on equality and democracy. In 1917 the United States became officially involved in WWI. Tensions were high. Some suffragists refused to unite behind a country that claimed to be a democracy and was engaging in a war to fight for democracy overseas yet denied to more than half of its own citizens the right to vote. The eruption of violence was long overdue.
The peaceful protest of the Silent Sentinels (Episode 71) was already both a courageous and outrageous act. Although picketing was legal under the Clayton Act, no one had ever picketed the White House. There were many people who admired the women’s fortitude. Like resolute soldiers, they picketed 6 days a week in all kinds of weather silently holding banners which changed regularly to express new sentiments criticizing the President’s refusal to endorse a national suffrage amendment.
The start of increased violence towards the women was in response to the “Russian Banner” of June 20, 1917. President Wilson had invited envoys from the newly formed Russian Republic to the White House to ask for their alliance in the war. The Russian Republic had just legislated national suffrage to Russian women. The Silent Sentinels held a banner which declared that “America is not a democracy” and asked Russia to delay allyship until the U.S. liberated American women. Right after the Russian envoys were out of sight, irate bystanders seized the banner and tore it to shreds. The next day the sentinels returned with another copy of the banner. It too was destroyed.
White House officials used the incident as a reason to ask the picketers to stop and threatened arrest. Alice Paul’s response was that it had been legal for six months and the law had not changed. On June 23, people gathered to see what would happen next. The suffragists carried their banners through the menacing crowd. The banners were destroyed. Police were there but only arrested the suffragists. The charge was “obstructing traffic”. The women were taken into custody but quickly released.
Emboldened by the lack of police interference, more hostile crowds came the next day. The suffragists continued to be arrested and released but on June 25, six of the nine women arrested were finally brought to trial for “obstructing traffic” and admonished by the judge for “unpatriotic” behavior. They refused to pay the $25 fine ($468 in 2020) and were sentenced to three days in District Jail. The six women were: Annie Arniel, Virginia Arnold, Lavinia Dock, Maud Jamison, Katharine Morey, and Mabel Vernon.
Picketers returned on July 4th with banners quoting the Declaration of Independence. Crowds attacked them. Once again, only the suffragists were arrested and sent to jail. On July 14th, Bastille Day, more suffragists arrived carrying banners citing the French slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Banners were destroyed and the suffragists arrested. However, this time a judge took the unusually harsh measure of sentencing them to sixty days in the Occoquan Workhouse. Under public pressure, President Wilson pardoned the women after three days. The peaceful picketing protests started again.
On August 14th, an extremely controversial banner appeared. It is known as the “Kaiser Wilson” banner comparing President Wilson to autocrat Kaiser Wilhelm and asked that he “take the beam out of your own eye”. People were outraged. Banner after banner was destroyed by the crowd. Suffragists had to retreat to the National Woman’s Party headquarters to shield themselves from the violent mob who hurled insults and objects at the women.
Over the following weeks, women were verbally and physically attacked as they picketed. Arrests were made and more women were sent to the Occoquan Workhouse over “obstruction of traffic” charges. In September, imprisoned suffragists including Lucy Burns asked to be declared political prisoners as they had been incarcerated for political beliefs expressed during legal peaceful protests and had not committed any actual crime. In October, Alice Paul and other suffragists were also arrested and sentenced to jail.
After two weeks in solitary confinement at the District Jail, a weakened Paul was transferred to the psych ward of the prison. Already experienced in the British suffrage tactic of hunger strikes from her time in England, Paul refused to eat as a form of passive resistance. She was harassed, deprived of sleep, interrogated for sanity, and force fed. Force feeding is done by physically restraining the person, inserting a long tube up the nose, down the throat and into the stomach. “Feeding” consists of a mixture of raw eggs and milk being poured into the tube until enough is kept down to keep the person from starvation. Serious injury, psychological trauma, and violent vomiting are common during the process. Sixteen suffragists including Paul went on hunger strikes and were force fed three times a day.
On November 10, 1917 a large delegation of Silent Sentinels picketed the White House in response to the brutal treatment and force feeding of the suffrage prisoners. They were arrested en masse and sent to the Occoquan Workhouse. Upon arrival at the prison on the evening of November 14th, the women demanded to be treated as political prisoners. The warden flew into a malicious rage. The guards beat and terrorized the women. Dora Lewis was knocked unconscious when she was thrown into her cell and hit her head on the iron bed. Alice Cosu saw this and suffered a heart attack. Lucy Burns’ arms were handcuffed over her head and chained to a cell door for the entire night. It was a horrific attack on the suffragists that made them live in constant fear every moment during their imprisonment. The events would eventually be reported in the papers. November 14, 1917 is remembered as the “Night of Terror” and became a turning point in the suffrage movement.
The Occoquan Workhouse started coming under public scrutiny as suffragists returned with stories of wretched conditions: Black women serving overly severe sentences for petty crimes, spoiled and vermin-infested food, a diseased and filthy hospital ward, and a culture of condoned brutality from the prison guards and the warden.The prison denied having force fed the hunger strikers but in late November suffragists were brought into court with obvious visible injuries from maltreatment at the workhouse and signs of having been force fed. Testimony by suffragists revealed that it had taken five women to restrain Lucy Burns during force feeding. Suffragist Doris Stevens later described her own first hand account of the arrests and Night of Terror in her book “Jailed for Freedom” published in 1920.
This week’s song pick:
“Til It Happens to You” by Lady Gaga https://youtu.be/ZmWBrN7QV6Y
Episode 73 Sources:
“Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement” by Robert P. J. Cooney Chapter 14 (Pages 343-363)
Timeline of Silent Sentinels during 1917
Free audio version of “Jailed for Freedom”
Free text version of “Jailed for Freedom”
1914 article “How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed” by journalist Djuna Barnes