December 2012Volume 18Number 2PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Chair’s column

On November 6, we had an opportunity to take advantage of one of the greatest privileges of our U.S. citizenship. As much of a privilege as it is to vote in an election, it is also a critical responsibility—one which our foremothers suffered greatly to secure.

Ninety-five years ago, suffragists picketed the White House seeking the right to vote. For their efforts, they were jailed. Thirty-three of them were convicted of obstructing sidewalk traffic. These women were then subjected to brutality at the hands of the guards, ordered by the warden of the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia.

According to reports, the guards grabbed, dragged, beat, choked, slammed pinched, twisted and kicked the women. 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. The guards hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed and knocked her out cold. Alice Cosu, her cellmate, thought Lewis was dead and suffered a heart attack.

During their incarceration, the women shared water from an open pail and were fed insect-infested food. When Alice Paul embarked on a hunger strike, the guards 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 the press learned of her mistreatment.

HBO memorialized the heroism of these women in the movie, Iron Jawed Angels, in which Woodrow Wilson and his cronies were shown trying to persuade a psychiatrist to declare Alice Paul insane so that she could be permanently institutionalized. As the doctor refused, he noted that Alice Paul was strong and brave. That didn’t make her crazy. The doctor admonished the men: “Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.”

It is a tribute to early patriots that our post-election transition of power remains peaceful and mind-boggling that in light of the struggle to earn the privilege, a much greater proportion of women do not take advantage of our right to vote. ■

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