Founding Feminists: November 22, 1917

Founding Feminists is the FMF’s daily herstory column.

FoundingFeministLogo-colorTwo major developments today regarding the suffragists imprisoned in Occoquan Workhouse.

The most encouraging action was a statement from the Department of Justice: it will conduct an official investigation into the atrocious conditions and acts of brutality inflicted on the “Silent Sentinels” serving time in Occoquan for peacefully picketing President Wilson along the White House fence as a way of prodding him into supporting the Susan B. Anthony (nationwide woman suffrage) Amendment.

In another positive development, Rep. George B. Francis, Republican of New York, made an official demand to District of Columbia Commissioner William Gwynn Gardiner that Superintendent Whittaker be removed from his position at the Workhouse due to his mistreatment of the prisoners in his charge. Rep. Francis made an inspection of the prison, and says that authorities were far from cooperative in helping him determine conditions there, but that: “What guarded information I could obtain from the pickets leads me to believe that they received inexcusable rough treatment.”

Despite the fact that Lucy Burns and Dora Lewis, leaders of the week-old hunger strike at Occoquan, have been transferred to D.C.’s District Jail, the remaining strikers remain as committed as ever. With a hearing about the legality of confining the “Silent Sentinel” pickets there in the first place, as well as about the well-founded allegations of brutality toward them scheduled for tomorrow in U.S. District Court, Superintendent Whittaker has suddenly switched tactics. Instead of threatening the suffrage prisoners with force-feeding to get them to break their fast, he offered them fried chicken and other tempting treats today. All food was refused, and the hunger strike begun after the “Night of Terror” at Occoquan continues.

Lucy Burns
Lucy Burns

Though Workhouse authorities are temporarily on their best behavior a day before being grilled in court about the prison’s shortcomings, and the abuses of the women in their custody, nothing has improved at D.C.’s District Jail. Alice Paul and Rose Winslow are enduring their 15th day of three-times daily force-feeding there. Kate Heffelfinger has been getting the same treatment since she was moved to the hospital ward day before yesterday. Lucy Burns and Dora Lewis arrived from Occoquan two days ago, and all five continue to be force-fed in Warden Zinkham’s District Jail. Lucy Burns has been resisting more than any of the others, and therefore is suffering the most. Instead of her feeding tube being inserted through the mouth and then down the throat, hers is inserted through the nose, and there are reports circulating at National Woman’s Party headquarters tonight that the sounds of great struggles are heard by other prisoners every time she undergoes this ordeal.

Elsewhere, the New York State Woman Suffrage Party wound up its convention in New York City today, and managed to get through their final controversies with good feelings and enthusiasm for the cause intact. The first resolution debated today was one which said: “In view of the likelihood of the immediate submission of the Federal amendment to the State Legislatures for ratification, we should campaign against the nomination or election of any candidates for the New York State Legislature, and campaign against candidates for Congress, who will not agree to indorse the Federal amendment, providing the Federal amendment has not passed before the next Congressional election which takes place in 1918.”

But Mary Garrett Hay noticed that something was missing from the resolution, and to great applause, she said: “I move we amend that by adding: ‘but we wish it understood that we do not put loyalty to the Federal amendment before loyalty to our country.’ ” Though some felt this was dignifying the charges by opponents that suffragists are less patriotic than anti-suffragists by answering the accusations, the motion passed overwhelmingly, and candidates will be judged on both their stand on suffrage and their support for our war effort.

A resolution introduced by Harriet May Mills sought to change the name of the group to the “New York State League of Women Citizens” now that the fight for suffrage has been won in the Empire State. After a lengthy debate, the proposal was rejected. One final controversy was averted. There is a vote coming up this Spring in Rochester on a local prohibition measure, and a delegate who had been approached by a leader of the local anti-saloon league asked the convention to endorse the proposal. Regardless of what their personal feelings may have been on the issue, no one seemed eager for the Party to take a stand on the measure because the “antis” are constantly trying to hurt suffrage by linking it with this controversial issue. But Hay came to the rescue and suggested that the matter be referred to the Executive Board for a decision at some time in the future.

The convention adopted the following as a Declaration of Principles, as offered by Alice Duer Miller:

That with the increase in power that comes to us with the ballot, we render our pledges of loyalty and service to our country.

The decision of the voters on November 6, having settled the question of woman suffrage in New York State, and all women are now enfranchised citizens and must meet those new duties and obligations, and though the suffrage party is throwing the force of its organization behind the Federal amendment, its purpose otherwise is to develop a plan of education in order to assist in fitting all women for citizenship.

That to all those women who desire to serve their Government effectively, who wish to know and then act, so that the injustices and difficulties under which many of the citizens of the State live and labor may be abolished, we, the Woman Suffrage Party, extend a hearty welcome.

That we express our gratitude to the voters of New York State for having recorded their belief in complete democracy.

That we express our especial gratitude to the President of the United States for his generous and effective assistance; to the Governor of the State for his long continued support, and to all organizations and individuals who have helped us to win the privileges of full citizenship.

Tomorrow a hearing for the suffragists imprisoned in Occoquan begins in Judge Edmund Waddill’s court, and since he has ordered that they be brought to the courtroom, it means that for the first time in over a week, we will be able to see them for ourselves, objectively judge their condition, and hear their personal testimony, rather than rely on smuggled notes and hearsay. Some very compelling stories may be about to be told, and anyone who doubts the devotion to the cause of those who believe in “Votes for Women” will be unlikely to retain those doubts for much longer.

Support eh ERA banner