Live-Blogging Women’s History: March 5, 1919

March 5, 1919: The “Prison Special” arrived tonight in Chicago.

The special railroad car, chartered by the National Woman’s Party to carry suffragists who have served jail time, left Washington, D.C., on February 15. It has given these brave activists a chance to state their case to huge crowds and numerous reporters. They have used the opportunity to detail their prison ordeals and explain why they have had to resort to ever more militant–though non-violent–tactics [PDF], such as burning the President’s speeches in large ceremonial urns in front of the White House.

The goal is to secure Congressional action on the stalled suffrage amendment, which failed by a single vote in the Senate on February 10, and show that President Wilson and his Democratic party are responsible for its failure thus far. The president could surely have coaxed the deciding vote from a member of his own party had he chosen to exert his full influence.

The tour has been a big hit ever since its first stop in Charleston, S.C., where it generated the biggest mass meeting in the city’s history. Upon arriving here tonight, Lucy Burns recounted her experience with force-feeding in jail:

I had been fasting for six days and nights when they started in on me. It was a terrible experience, a horrible attempt to break my will. Five men and two women were employed in doing it. The men would pin me to the floor, several of them holding my arms by my sides. If I struggled they would sit upon me. And while the men held me the women would insert a tube in my mouth through which a fluid of egg and milk would be forced into my stomach. I was weak from the fasting, but whenever I was strong enough I would refuse to let them insert the tube into my mouth. At such times they would insert it in the nose and force the fluid into my stomach that way. Food so taken is not nourishing. It was not meant to be. It was done simply to break my will.

Other women on the train have equally compelling stories, and all will be at a mass meeting in the Congress Hotel tomorrow night, though some will make a quick trip to Milwaukee in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the National Woman’s Party’s struggles continue. Last night in New York, some members who were peacefully demonstrating outside President Wilson’s speech at the Metropolitan Opera House were assaulted by police, soldiers and sailors. The women had gathered from around the nation to express indignation that the president was leaving the country to campaign for democracy abroad while letting the Constitutional amendment that would bring democracy to America’s women languish.

Photo of policeman in Syracuse welcoming Mrs. Henry O. Havemeyer and Miss Vida Milholland upon the arrival of Prison Special from Wikimedia Commons.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.