It is not well known but some American women went to jail for their right to vote. In a prison that had been discarded ten years earlier as “unfit to hold a human being,” they were subjected to insect-infected food, sunless cells and in some cases brutal attack. A few went on hunger strikes and were force fed by a tube inserted by mouth, a torturous procedure so disruptive to the body that many developed health issues for years afterward.
As we mark Women’s History Month, it is important to remember them. They had started in January 1917, as picketers at the gates of Woodrow Wilson’s White House. With Europe already embroiled in the The Great War, many thought it unpatriotic of women to seek their rights while men were dying in battle.
The Baltimore Sun said the picketing demonstrated “the unfitness of those who take part in it to participate in public affairs. Why should the nation call to its aid such selfish and unpatriotic counselors as these? When they seek to harass and embarrass the President in the face of national dangers and duties such as he confronts at present, with what patience can their claims to citizenship be considered?”
And still they persevered. As I write in my new book, Gilded Suffragists, over the next 18 months they picketed in shifts of three hours, every day of the week except Sundays, “in all kinds of weather, in rain and in sleet, in hail and in snow.” At first, President Wilson looked the other way, for fear of turning them into martyrs. Once the United States entered the war against Germany, the arrests began. The charge was obstructing the sidewalk.
By year’s end, 500 women walked the picket lines, including African-America suffragist Mary Church Terrell. Some 170 were arrested. With suffrage benefactor Alva Belmont presiding, Alice Paul, the National Women’s Party leader who had launched the protests, awarded silver lapel pins depicting a prison cell door — borrowed from a similar pin issued to jailed British suffragettes — to all who had done time in prison.
In January, these American prisoners of suffrage embarked on a tour of the country telling their stories, dressed in jailhouse garb, tailed by FBI looking for subversive socialist speech or militant British suffragette influence.