Today in Feminist History: Suffragists Continue to Hunger Strike (November 19, 1917)

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.

Sixteen of the suffragists imprisoned in Occoquan Workhouse are continuing the hunger strike they began after arrival on the evening of the 14th.

Imprisoned suffragist Rose Winslow, who along with Alice Paul, is currently being force-fed three times a day in the District Jail.

But their condition has now become so serious that according to Mary Short, who was just released today, Superintendent Whittaker has asked for permission to grant their demand to be treated as political prisoners. If true, this would be quite a change from Whittaker’s original view that they could “commit suicide” if they wanted to, and that he would not force-feed them to keep them alive, or give them political prisoner status.

According to Short, the hunger strikers are all in a quite weakened condition but still able to get around, except for Dora Lewis, who can no longer move unassisted. Lewis was briefly knocked unconscious on the night she arrived after striking her head on an iron bed frame when thrown into her unheated punishment cell by guards. All 30 of the newly-arrived suffrage prisoners were subject to brutal treatment that night, and others were injured as well.

Another suffrage prisoner, Anna Kelton Wiley, who was being held in the District Jail, was released on bond today pending an appeal of her conviction. Alice Paul and Rose Winslow are in the hospital ward of that facility, being force-fed three times a day. Their ordeals began three days after they commenced a hunger strike on November 5th.

Meanwhile, the “antis” are questioning the patriotism of suffragists and linking the suffrage movement with pacifism and socialism. Yesterday, Alice Hay Wadsworth, wife of New York’s senior Senator, and President of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, said in an appeal sent out nationwide, 12 days after New York women won the vote in a Statewide referendum:

“The New York suffrage victory may prove a means of arousing the people of America to the peril of woman suffrage. An analysis of the New York vote shows that suffrage was carried there by pro-Germans and pacifists. The inclosed statement proves this clearly. Therefore suffrage in New York has raised a greater issue than ever before.

It has helped suffragists in their efforts to force the Federal amendment. The next step after the Federal amendment would be the demand for a referendum––to men and women voters––on this war! Nothing could so divide our country or help the Kaiser. With Russia and Italy defeated by internal discord and socialism, every patriotic American must be brought to realize that doubling the electorate at this time might lead to defeat in this war. We must arouse every real American man and woman to this menace of the triple alliance––socialism, suffragism, pacifism. Will you add the weight of your influence to carry these facts to the people of your State?”

Today, suffragists expressed indignation at Wadsworth’s charge. Gertrude Foster Brown asked:

“Does she think President Wilson is pro-German? Does she think Theodore Roosevelt and Secretary [of the Treasury] McAdoo are pro-German? Does she not realize that President Wilson asked the men of New York to vote for suffrage as part of the battle for democracy and that it was in that spirit they responded?”

She went on to say:

“It is an insult to loyal women who have done massive war work to intimate that the suffragists constitute a pro-German body or that we suffrage adherents do.”

Brown then turned the tables and wondered how Wadsworth’s statement might be viewed in the foreign press:

“Does she think the reckless imputation of divided loyalty in New York State is helpful to this country in time of war? Is her patriotism so poor she is willing to befoul her own nest in this reckless and irresponsible manner?”

The battle for suffrage continues on many fronts, and tomorrow the New York State Woman Suffrage Party opens its convention. Coming just two weeks after passage of the suffrage referendum in New York State on November 6th, optimism is high about winning suffrage nationwide, so the goal of delegates gathering for the convention at New York City’s Ritz-Carlton will be “Votes For All In Two Years.”


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.