This past Thursday, a grandmother-friend who works as an office manager in the education department of one of our campus museums sent me the most unexpected and thought-provoking spam email, especially instructive for those who (like me) are NOT political or social historians. Forgive me if you are yourself an historian (in which case you may want to amend or otherwise critique this history) or if you have already received this email (which may be late in coming to me). I never forward spam, but I did forward this “Message for All Women,” itself an inspiring example of spam activism. All day Thursday and Friday my inbox filled with replies to that spam, from yoga teachers and classmates, girlhood pals, graduate students, and school teachers telling me about their grandmothers’ observations of the events retold in this email or about young students’ responses to it in class that day, and pleading for social events organized this election season around HBO’s 2004 movie starring Hilary Swank, Iron Jawed Angels. Referencing that film as well as a highly informative Library of Congress archive online, this spam email implored its recipients to ask ourselves what the women who struggled to win the right to vote would think of the way we use or don’t use our right today. Any thoughts on that question to share? Have you seen this film? If so, please comment here.
Remember also that not only women—but John Dewey and other men too!—wrote, spoke, and marched for women’s suffrage, a cause intimately connected with that of coeducation. But I don’t think Dewey or many of them suffered for suffrage as some courageous women did on the Night of Terror, only to be labeled “insane” by that “progressive” Democrat U.S. president who sold war as a way of making the world safe for democracy.
Useful to educators, the HBO film’s website and the government archive site both include timelines and pictorial histories of women’s struggle for suffrage and of President Woodrow Wilson’s active opposition to that struggle as he led the U.S. into World War I. It’s worthy of note how war seems to affect political concerns about sex equality. Just as the U.S. suffrage movement had slowed to a halt during the Civil War, some women gave up the struggle for suffrage to take up “war work” during World War I. But Lucy Burns and Alice Paul, religious women (Roman Catholic and Quaker respectively, educated at Vassar College and Swarthmore College respectively) who founded the National Women’s Party, adopted the tactics of British women’s activism for suffrage, organized a counter-inaugural parade, and relentlessly picketed the White House everyday. As a consequence they were arrested for “obstructing sidewalk traffic,” and November 15, 1917 has become known as the Night of Terror. Forty prison guards with their warden’s consent went on a rampage wielding their clubs against the arrested suffragists. They smashed Dora Lewis’s head against an iron bedstead and knocked her out cold, causing her cellmate to have a heart attack. Imprisoned six times, Burns insisted that the incarcerated suffragists, who also included Paul and many others besides Burns herself, were political prisoners. Imprisoned at Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, the women were fed colorless worm-infested slop for weeks and could only drink water from an open pail; Burns and Paul instigated a hunger strike among the prisoners. Prison officials beat Burns, handcuffed her hands over her head, hung her bleeding overnight, and force-fed the hunger strikers. They tied Paul to a chair, poked tubes down her throat and poured liquid into her until she vomited. Afterwards, these suffragists organized a cross-country speaking tour, the “Prison Special,” to inform the public about their experiences of brutality, their punitive reward for wanting full U.S. citizenship.
This coming Tuesday, August 26, will be the 88th anniversary of U.S. women’s getting the right to vote, through U.S. Congress’s ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Contemplate this fact along with the Night of Terror while watching the Republican and Democratic Party conventions on television this coming month, and share your relevant reflections and observations here.