Today in Herstory: The “Prison Special” Tour Comes to a Successful End

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.


March 10, 1919: A worthy finale to a spectacularly successful 23-day nationwide rail tour by the “Prison Special” tonight, as 3,500 people greeted the suffragists who had formerly been imprisoned for peacefully picketing along the White House fence.

An elaborate pageant of color and light opened the Carnegie Hall ceremonies in which “Justice,” played by Vida Milholland, received the women of the nations in which equal suffrage had already been achieved. She was then approached by a woman in chains and twenty black-garbed mourners. They represented America and pled for a place in the light of true democracy. The pageant concluded with “Justice” holding aloft her torch and singing “The Women’s Marseillaise.”

Vida Milholland
Vida Milholland

Speeches from several of the ex-prisoners then followed the opening ceremonies, each speaker heartily applauded by an audience which included former Governor Whitman, William Randolph Hearst and a number of other prominent New Yorkers.

“The militants are here, and we haven’t broken anything, not even broken down,” said Louisine Havemeyer, who then outlined the successes of the trip. There was even more applause when she announced that the National Woman’s Party, sponsors of the tour, now had enough pledges of support from members of the new, and now Republican-controlled Congress to pass the Susan B. Anthony (nationwide woman suffrage) Amendment and send it to the State legislatures for ratification.

Thanks to Ann Martin’s eloquence, the program was successful in raising a good deal of money for what now appear to be the final battles ahead in the suffrage struggle.

An unexpected, but welcome event occurred near the end of tonight’s program. A sailor asked to take the stage on behalf of the Soldiers’ Sailors’ and Marines’ Protective Association and 24 other men in uniform who accompanied him to the gala. He then denounced the brutal treatment given by fellow service members to the suffragists peacefully protesting outside a hall where President Wilson was giving a speech on March 4th.

Tonight’s meeting capped a final busy day of activity. In the morning the train stopped at Hartford, Connecticut, where the ex-prisoners were greeted by a large group of banner-bearing citizens and escorted to City Hall, where Mayor Kinsella welcomed them. Katharine Hepburn – suffragist, birth control legalization advocate and head of the Connecticut branch of the National Woman’s Party – opened a rally on the City Hall steps in honor of the visitors. Hepburn praised the courage of the women, then questioned the double standard used by many in condemning woman suffrage “militance” by contrasting the Woman’s Party actions such as picketing, or burning the President’s speeches, with the violent revolutions of men seeking a voice in their government:

The reason you do not apply the same reasoning to the woman’s case is that you have become used to looking upon women as naturally servile and second rate. You are willing to have them beg politely for their freedom but not demand it. Well, there are some women in this country who are neither servile nor second rate and who have the spirit to protest against the present position of American women until it is changed. They are among the most worthwhile women in this country, the kind you men really like in spite of all your old fashioned notions.

The arrests of suffragists continue, sixteen having served time in the Charles Street Jail following a Boston demonstration just two weeks ago. So, the courage Hepburn spoke of is still needed. But that’s clearly in abundance as the battle for the Anthony Amendment finally seems about to move from winning approval of 2/3 of Congress to gaining ratification by 3/4 of the States.


NOTE: The Katharine Hepburn who spoke at the rally in Hartford, CT, in honor of the suffragists on the “Prison Special” was the mother of the Katharine Hepburn who would later have a spectacular movie career.

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