Friday, October 21, 2011

How women won the vote

American SuffragistFew people know the term “Iron jawed angels” or to whom it refers, but it is a testament to strong women and about one of the most compelling times in America. My mother could have told you as she first got to vote at 21, the year after the women’s right to vote amendment was passed, and never missed voting the rest of her life. She got the vote because of these brave women.

Who were the iron-jawed angels? Just women. Just like your mother, grandmother and sisters. Just women who gave up a lot to get the vote. Many people do not even know that women were not allowed to vote until the Constitution was amended—and it did not come easily.

There are protests today against Wall Street and banks, but this protest was for basic rights for women and it was not pretty. Few today know of the brutal tactics that were taken toward mothers, grandmothers and young women in their fight for the Vote.

A group of women picketed the White House and were defenseless, but they were jailed nonetheless for carrying signs asking for the vote.

A Woman's CrusadeOn November 15, 1917 they were arrested and by the end of the night, they were barely alive. Forty prison guards wielding clubs and their warden's blessing went on a rampage against the 33 women wrongly convicted of 'obstructing sidewalk traffic.'

They beat Lucy Burns, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head and left her hanging for the night, bleeding and gasping for air.

They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, thought Lewis was dead and suffered a heart attack. Additional affidavits describe the guards grabbing, dragging, beating, choking, slamming, pinching, twisting and kicking the women.

Thus unfolded the 'Night of Terror', when the warden at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia ordered his guards to teach a lesson to the suffragists imprisoned there because they dared to picket Woodrow Wilson's White House for the right to vote. For weeks, the women's only water came from an open pail. Their food--all of it worse than pig slop--was infested with worms.

Alice PaulWhen one of the leaders, Alice Paul, embarked on a hunger strike, they tied her to a chair, forced a tube down her throat and poured liquid into her until she vomited. She was tortured like this for weeks until word was smuggled out to the press.

In the new HBO movie, Iron Jawed Angels, a reporter stated that it was jarring to watch Woodrow Wilson and his cronies try to persuade a psychiatrist to declare Alice Paul insane so that she could be permanently institutionalized. And it is inspiring to watch the doctor refuse. Alice Paul was strong, he said, and brave. That didn't make her crazy. The doctor admonished the men: 'Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.'

The 19th Amendment passed in 1920—New Mexico was the thirty-second state to ratify it.

So, refresh my memory. Some women won't vote this year because…? We have carpool duties? We have to get to work? Our vote doesn't matter? It's raining? If nothing else, vote because of Alice Paul, Lucy Burns and Dora Lewis. It is the least we can do to honor them.

By PCH at Main. With thanks to HBO.

Photo of Alice Paul courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Kevin Sullivan said...

One of the interesting lessons from the suffragette movement,and the allied progressive movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, is that religion used to be a powerful force in promoting and organizing for liberal reforms against injustice. If you consider the multitude of causes which created many of the basic rights we now take for granted, the leadership of those movements were primarily drawn from churches like the Quakers, Unitarian Universalists and allied groups, and reformed Judaism. Here's a great list of social activists of the Unitarian Universalist background for example.

This handful of religious groups, who were in the extreme minority of American religions, accounted for many of the leaders of the abolitionists, suffragists, workers' rights, anti-child labor advocates, and later the civil rights and anti-war movements. Almost every modern reform was spearheaded by these women and men.

To provide a startling contrast, consider that today's religiously backed political activism is almost exclusively the territory of conservatives. It seems anytime religion comes up in the media, it's promoting a right wing view. I suppose the African American community and Judaism still have certain sectors dedicated to defending progressive issues, but they are primarily on the defensive. Church is a great organizing tool because you have people with similar values gathering on at least a weekly basis so they are far easier to mobilize. I think many liberals no longer see the need to regularly attend some form of organized religious services but instead practice their own personalized form of spirituality, are agnostic/atheist/humanist, or have moved on to different types of religions of the more new age variety. That is understandable, but is the loss of a powerful tool and now politics is primarily the province of the right.

Marguerite Kearns said...

Yes, this is a very important part of our history. American history. In August at the Oliver LaFarge Library on Llano Street, there will be a display case on the winning of the 19th amendment. It's a labor of love, in part because my grandmother was a suffragist and this part of our history should be better known. I believe in building leadership through stories of the suffrage movement. Stories about grandmother Edna Kearns are featured on my blog and web site.