Earlier this month millions of American women went to the polls to cast their ballots in the mid-term elections. Most of us know that women fought for 70 years for our right to vote, but how many of us really realize just what they had to endure? Nov. 15 marked the 105th anniversary of the Night of Terror, in which 33 suffragists were imprisoned and tortured for peacefully demonstrating in front of the White House.
In January 1917, groups of suffragists, all members of the National Women’s Party, began silently protesting in front of the White House, holding signs bearing slogans like “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” In all, these “Silent Sentinels,” as they were known, numbered more than 2,000.
For the most part, these protesters were quietly ignored by both conservative suffragists who disagreed with their tactics and the White House. That is until the U.S. entered WWI and the public began seeing their protests as unpatriotic. On Nov. 10, 1917, when 30 suffragists including Alice Paul, Dorothy Day (yes, the same woman who founded the Catholic Worker’s Union), and Lucy Burns were arrested for obstructing traffic in front of the White House. Or at least that was the official charge. Everyone knew they were really being arrested for protesting.
They were taken to District of Columbia Jail and then remanded to Virginia’s Occoquan Workhouse. There, the women who ranged in age from X to 73, demanded to be treated as political prisoners, which the prison guards laughed at. Who were these women to demand such things? They were denied legal counsel, so Dudley Field Malone, a lawyer for the Wilson administration, resigned his position and agreed to represent their legal rights.
On Nov. 14, 1917, the superintendent of the workhouse ordered the guards to beat the suffragists into submission. They were tortured and left for dead. Dora Lewis was knocked unconscious; Alice Cosu suffered a heart attack and was denied medical care until the next morning; and Lucy Burns was awkwardly handcuffed with her hands above her head, forcing her to stand overnight. Many were thrown against an iron bench or their iron bedframes, one violently hitting her head to the point the others thought she was dead.
In response to this mistreatment and horrible living conditions—rats roamed the halls, there were maggots in the food, the water was filthy, and the restrooms were very public—the women staged hunger strikes. The government wasn’t about to have them die in jail, so they were force-fed through tubes. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Library of Congress records that they suffered “unprecedented psychological intimidation.”
This event, dubbed the “Night of Terror” caught media attention, turning public sympathy toward the suffragists. They were released on Nov. 28. About a month and a half later, President Wilson finally announced his support of women’s suffrage. In March of the following year, a D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the arrests were unconstitutional. Silent Sentinels continued to protest until Congress passed the 19th amendment on Aug. 18, 1920. Then the women went back to their home states to campaign for state ratification.
To learn more about the Night of Terror, read Jailed for Freedom, a first-person account of the events by Doris Stevens, or watch the movie Iron Jawed Angels.
Some of you may be aware that I’m working on a proposal for a non-fiction book on the history of U.S. feminism that I hope to have published on or near the 100th anniversary of American women getting the right to vote, which is August 19, 2020. This week, Diana at Creating Herstory is featuring a four-part article I wrote on this very same subject and I thought I’d repost the article each day as it runs on her site. It will give you a rough idea of what the book will include, although the book also will have a section on colonial feminist thought that this article doesn’t cover.
Image purchased from Adobe Stock
For me, every day is Women’s History month because I’m currently researching the history of the feminism movement in the United States for a book.
Honestly, although I’ve considered myself a feminist for more than 20 years, I never really thought much about the movement in general or how it came to be. But then I researched my historical fiction novel Madame Presidentess, which is about Victoria Woodhull, a suffragist and the first woman to run for president in the U.S. in 1872 – 48 years before women won the right to vote. Because she was friends with the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, I came to learn a lot about how feminism and women’s rights came to be in our country.
Historians generally agree that there have been at least three “waves” or intense periods of activity around women’s rights. But that is where the consensus ends. Exactly when these waves took place and what they encompassed is a serious matter of debate, especially where later waves are concerned. Some people (like me), believe we’re currently living in a fourth wave of feminism, while others say we’re still in the third or even in a fifth. There is even some debate on whether or not feminism in American dates back to colonial times, far before the generally accepted seminal event of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.
While one article could never do justice to the many facets of the feminist movement (that’s what the book is for, and even then it is impossible to hit all points), here’s a brief summary of the three accepted waves, as well as my theory of a current fourth wave. All dates are approximate.
Wave One: 1840-1920 – Women Fight for Citizenship and Suffrage Key figures: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt, and others.
Susan B. Anthony (standing) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Beginning in the 1830s, women started to quietly talk amongst themselves about their rights and to question why, under United States law, they were not considered full citizens. This eventually led to the first public debate on women’s rights at Oberlin College in 1846 and the first public address about women’s rights the next year. The first women’s rights convention in the United States took place the following July in Seneca Falls, New York. From this meeting came the Declaration of Sentiments, which was modeled on the Declaration of Independence, was all about woman and her rights, or lack thereof, in the country at that time. It became the basis for the women’s rights movement until the Civil War disrupted the whole country and placed the public’s attention squarely on abolition.
After the Civil War, the women’s movement split into two groups divided over the idea of enfranchisement of blacks as well as whether universal suffrage should be granted at the Federal or state levels. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were the leaders of the radical National Woman Suffrage Association, whose members believed that the enfranchisement of black and immigrant men would make it more difficult for women to be given the vote and called for a federal agreement for women suffrage. On the other side of the fence were Lucy Stone and the American Woman Suffrage Association, whose members supported the 15th Amendment and worked for women’s suffrage on a state-by-state basis.
This division hampered the efforts of both groups, by weakening resources, causing in-fighting within the movement and fracturing public attention. As time went on, some states granted suffrage on a case-by-case basis, usually beginning with school suffrage. The first state to grant women full voting rights was Wyoming in 1869. In 1872, Victoria Woodhull ran for president, even though she wasn’t technically old enough and the vast majority of women didn’t have the right to vote for her. Despite the odds, Susan B. Anthony succeeded in voting in that election (not for Victoria, as the two were bitter enemies by this point) but was arrested and found guilty of illegal voting. But she made history and headlines with her act, and her widely publicized trial spurred on flagging suffragists across the country. In 1875, Virginia Minor, a suffragist from Missouri, argued before the Supreme Court that women already had the right to vote under the 14th amendment of the Constitution, which that states suffrage is a right of all citizens of the United States. But the Supreme Court ruled against her, stating that all “men” had the right to vote, and the suffragists realized that the Federal government wasn’t going to help them. Thus began the decades-long campaign
Women’s Rights National Historical Park. Image purchased from Adobe Stock.
for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would enfranchise women.
The two warring factions of women’s suffrage finally reunited in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), under the united cause of getting suffrage state-by-state. Twenty-six years later, tired of this slow, tame approach, Alice Paul formed the National Woman’s Party, a militant group focused on the passage of a national suffrage amendment. The following year, more than 200 members of this group – known as the Silent Sentinels – were arrested while picketing the White House. Many of them went on hunger strikes in prison and were subjected to torture and barbaric practices like forced feeding. (These women were the Iron-Jawed Angels of the 2004 film of the same name.)
Despite these setbacks, the women’s movement continued under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, who focused whole-heartedly on the national amendment from 1916 on. Women finally gained the right to vote on a Federal level on August 20, 1920. But it took a long time for the states to catch up (Mississippi was the last state in the union to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment in 1984) and it wasn’t for several decades that African-American women were truly able to vote without fear of discrimination and harm.
Tomorrow’s Part 2 will talk about the Second Wave of feminism, which lasted approximately from 1960-the late 1980s.