Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.
November 11, 1917: The 41 suffragists arrested yesterday while trying to picket along the White House fence will spend part of what may be their last day of freedom before their trials tomorrow inside the walls of the District of Columbia Jail.
Why? To express their support for the suffrage prisoners already there, especially Alice Paul, being held in the jail’s psychopathic ward, and force-fed three times a day for being the “ringleader” of the “Silent Sentinel” pickets.
The assembly was not, of course, approved by the warden, but it went forward anyway.
Anna Kelton Wiley, Elizabeth Kent and Lucy Burns led their fellow visitors double-file to the warden’s office, where they demanded to talk to him. The warden’s wife came to the door and said they couldn’t see him because “the poor man is prostrated,” presumably due to telephone calls from the public objecting to the extreme punishments being given to women peacefully picketing for the right to vote.
The delegation’s members decided they weren’t going to leave without accomplishing their mission, so they fanned out and began looking for Alice Paul, Rose Winslow and the other suffrage prisoners.
Soon, someone called out: “There’s Miss Paul … There she is!” A few surprised guards were no match for the determination of the women, so some of Paul’s most ardent supporters rushed by and clustered below her window to salute her. “West Virginia greets you!” “Oklahoma is with you!” “New York salutes you!”
Despite force-feedings and sleepless nights spent listening to the shrieks of patients in the psychopathic ward, Alice Paul seemed as spirited as ever. She told supporters: “Many of you will probably be here tomorrow. I want to say to you now that you will find the conditions intolerable. You must make it clear from the first that you are political offenders and demand that you be treated as such. Your number will make it impossible for them to do anything but grant your demands.”
When asked how she was doing, Paul replied: “Oh, I’m all right. I am being forcibly fed three times a day. It is worse than in England. There they feed you only twice. I am able to prevent them from giving me half of what they bring, but I have not the strength to prevent them from forcing me to take some.”
She was told to “hold on,” and she assured those below: “Oh, I will.” Then she reiterated: “I want you all to demand that you be treated as political prisoners. That’s what you must do.” They assured her they would.
The guards regrouped, and began pushing the women away from Paul’s window and toward the prison gate. As they passed Rose Winslow’s window they called out to her as well. Winslow told them: “I am resisting their feeding all I can, but I am too weak to put up much resistance. My stomach is resisting, though.”
Officials at National Woman’s Party headquarters are telling of notes that Winslow has smuggled out of jail, calling prison conditions “frightful” and speaking of the torture of force-feeding, in which she and Alice Paul are held down while a rubber tube is forced into the throat and liquid poured in through a funnel.
According to Winslow’s note: “Alice Paul dreads forcible feeding. I hate to think how she must be feeling. I had a nervous time of it, gasping a long time afterward and stomach rejecting during the process. Spent a bad, restless night, but otherwise all right …. We are denied food from outside, visitors, clothes, books, many things, so please make that clear. All of the prisoners have made most of the demands we are making, as you know.”
In a note to Lucy Burns, Winslow says: “The feeding gives me a severe headache. My throat aches afterward, and I always weep and sob, to my great disgust, because I try to be less feeble. It is horrible. I’m very much interested in seeing how long our splendid American men will stand for this form of discipline.”
The injustice of Alice Paul’s being held in the psychopathic ward became even more outrageous yesterday, when it was reported by Lavinia Dock that even Warden Zinkham doesn’t think she belongs there. He reportedly told Dock: “I have never met a more brilliant mind,” and “I shall be a subject for the psychopathic ward myself if there is not a let-up in the flood of protests I am receiving.”
If protests are having such a powerful effect, they need to be kept up and even increased. The National Woman’s Party is doing everything it can to make sure no one forgets the ordeals being undergone by the prisoners.
Protest meetings against the ridiculously long sentences given peaceful picketers, for trivial and false offenses such as allegedly “blocking traffic” on the wide Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk, are being held all over the country by those who believe that public pressure can put an end to these outrages. There’s a major gathering in New York City tonight, just five days after women in that state won the vote.
Attend if you can, and then go to Washington, D.C., to call for the release of the suffrage prisoners. Demand fair treatment for all those who want to exercise their Constitutional right to peacefully protest as a way of winning the most basic right of a citizen in a democracy—the right to have an equal voice in selecting those who pass the laws that women as well as men are compelled to obey.