We meet the 1st and 3rd Thursdays at St. Gertrude's Ministry Center
(6214 N. Glenwood), beginning at 8:00 p.m. Folks are welcome to join us at anytime.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Linking Struggles

In 1913, suffragist Alice Paul officially started the National Woman’s Party, NWP, an organization with one goal in mind, the passing of a Constitutional Amendment allowing every American woman the right to vote. Paul began her work as a close associate to the National American Women’s Suffrage Association; however, by 1913 Paul realized that the tactics used by NAWSA were not militant or radical enough to push the amendment through. Paul knew that civil disobedience, picketing the White House and the hunger strike were necessary and appropriate actions to meet their objectives.

I have been thinking about Alice Paul a lot this week. Paul became one of my heroes when I chose to write my senior thesis on her triumph for my history degree in undergrad. Her use of non-violent tactics such as picketing the White House, the civil disobedience that followed, and the hunger strikes performed in prison, serves to inspire the work that I do today. I see the things happening this week (and throughout the 100 Days Campaign) as following closely and beautifully in the spirit of the work done by Alice Paul and her suffragist sisters at the turn of the century.

It began by Defying Authority. On January 10, 1917, twelve women wearing sashes of purple and gold (1) and carrying banners took up their post in front of the White House gates. The banner the held read “MR PRESIDENT HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?" The women remained dedicated to continuous picketing through January, February, and March; they stood in front of the White House in good and bad weather, in fact during this first phase of picketing the women’s greatest challenge was, “a winter so bitingly cold that hands ached and feet felt like bricks of ice."(2)

Much like these women, men and women have stood outside the White House for the past 100 days holding signs that read (among others): “Those Who Have a Voice Must Speak for the Voiceless.” The presence has endured a frigid winter, high winds, rain, and snow (and according to the blog, on day 92 they experienced hail!).

Paul continued her non-violent militancy by Resisting Authority. Despite the increasing blatancy of the signs Alice Paul remained faithful to her Quaker roots and refused to use violence. Unlike her early teachers, the Pankhurst’s (violent suffragists in England), Paul did not believe in using violent force of the destruction of property to convey her point. “They would instead use their own bodies, sacrificing themselves – their health, their jobs, and their reputations – for women’s rights.” (3)

This passive approach would be tested, to a near breaking point, on June 21, 1917 when the picketers were attacked by an angry mob. Prior to World War I the picketers were referred to as foolish or undignified. However, after war broke out these words changed to unpatriotic, some were even called traitors (4). There are many reasons for this. In his book Aliens and Dissenters, William Preston explains that in times of political, military, or economic unrest there tends to be much less tolerance for dissenters. Perhaps the passion expressed by the angry mob was a result of elevated patriotism due to World War I (5). Regardless of the reasons, an angry crowd of onlookers attacked Lucy Burns, Katharine Morey and Hazel Hunkins. On that day Hunkins was carrying a sign that stated “Democracy Should Begin at Home.” According to the first Secret Service (FBI) report ever written about the NWP, Agent W.W. Grimes saw a Mrs. D. Richardson charge at Hazel Hunkins while that police cheered on Richardson. Richardson left Hunkins and made her way to the western gate where she resumed her attack on the other picketers. A letter was written to President Wilson by a member of the mob. This excerpt from a letter, written by either Mrs. Richardson or another female onlooker, in June 1917, gives some insight into the minds of the angry crowd.

"[W]ith the assistance of a little group of ‘real men’, [I] tore down all the banners which had been placed in front of the White House. Colonel Bryan was leaving at the time and smiled. I love this country and the American flag, and in the name of the group of men who helped me defend your good name, I appeal to you to put an end to their offensive and outrageous doings. A distinguished Russian congratulated me and informed me that if the women in Russia would do such a thing, they would immediately be ‘spanked’ in the street. Now, millions of young men must leave for France and die for their county’s honor. Is it right, is it justice to them that at the same time females, who are no women, are permitted to disgrace and insult the government and the manhood of this country?" (6)

It is clear from this letter that it was a combination of the “unpatriotic” messages on the signs, total disgust that a group of ladies would participate in such an action, and fear that the masculinity of this country could be stripped away if these feminists were allowed to continue, that drove the mob to attack the picketers. Regardless of the reasons, on June 21, 1917 police action against the NWP was taken for the first time since its founding. The next day Alice Paul informed the Police Chief that the picketing would not stop. For the next four days women continued to picket and the Washington D.C. police continued to arrest them. Nine were arrested on June 26, six of whom were put on trial (7). On June 27, 1917, six women appeared before a Washington D.C. judge, their crime was "obstructing traffic" (sound familiar?). These women were convicted of this crime and given a $25.00 fine or three days in jail. Paying the fine would be a sign of defeat, and they knew that going to jail would be seen as additional protest. Katharine Morey, Mabel Vernon, Virginia Arnold, Lavina Dock, and Maud Jamison served their jail sentence. These women were the first ever to serve jail time for advocating women’s rights (8).

Today, April 30, 2009, the 100th Day of the Obama Administration, 60 men and women will risk arrest in an act of civil disobedience at the White House. While this action is perhaps more methodical or strategic than that of the suffragists in 1917, it is still incredibly profound. The willingness to freely give up ones liberty to draw attention to the liberty and freedom stripped from the prisoners in Guantanamo and the unconscionable conditions under which they are forced to live is immensely important.

The final step was Radicalization. If the women thought that being publically beaten by angry mobs in front of the White House was humiliating, it was nothing compared to the miserable conditions in which they would be forced to live in at the workhouse (9). Forced into solitary confinement, the women had little or no access to the outside world. The food was rotten, rancid meat, mold covered cornbread, worms in the grits, and dead flies and rat droppings everywhere. On October 30, 1917, Alice Paul began a hunger strike (10). “In the face of public, government-sponsored male violence, the NWP countered with the most potent weapon of their ‘womanly,’ nonviolent, ‘passive’ resistance – the hunger strike" (11). As Paul continued her hunger strike, Lucy Burns, who was also imprisoned in the workhouse, worked to achieve political prisoner status for the suffragists. The women felt that using the hunger strike it made them political, rather than criminal, offenders. After three days of the hunger strike, Paul was removed from the workhouse and take to the psychiatric ward in the district prison; there she was force fed three times a day. Alice Paul recalls the force feedings, "I was seized and laid on my back, where five people held me, [one] leaping upon my knees ... Dr. Gannon then forced the tube my lips and down my throat, I was gasping and suffocating from the agony of it. I didn't know where to breathe from, and everything turned black ..."

We know that the hunger strike as been a “tactic” used widely in Guantanamo. Prisoners have entered into strategic striking to draw attention to the terrible conditions they are forced to live in. In 2005, as many as 128 detainees participated in a hunger strike. While military personal referred to this strike as a “fast” and simply an act to “get attention,” we know otherwise. These men were participating a radical and dangerous action to draw attention to the horrible, degrading conditions that they were forced to live in without any criminal charges brought against them. The first strike began in 2002 after guards threw a Koran on the ground and stepped on it. Like Paul, these prisoners were taking political action, for many an action of last resort.

As many of you know, I have been participating in a 6 day fast as part of the end of the 100 Days Campaign. This act seems so trivial compared to getting arrested or participating in a hunger strike. However, I am doing this as an act of solidarity with my friends, Jake, Jerica, Anna, Luke, Cassie, Meghan, and Zach who have traveled to Washington DC to participate in the actions of this week. I am also fasting to acknowledge the fact that, despite the fact that President Obama signed an executive order closing Guantanamo, 251 men remain detained, 60 of whom have been cleared for release. I had far more anxiety about this fast than I anticipated. In fact, I spent much of Sunday night tossing and turning dreading the week. At the root of this anxiety was a voice in my head that said, “Abby, you’re not going to make it through the week, you’re going to fail and give up.” This is a voice I hear often and struggle with daily. I realized quickly that this isn’t a game; it’s not something at which I can win or loose, succeed or fail. I am participating in this fast in order to physically and spiritually link my body to my brothers and sisters participating in the actions this week and to my brothers and sisters suffering as a result of places like Guantanamo and the actions and policies done in my name. It is opportunity to be connected to the rich history of struggle imbedded in this county’s foundation.

1) Gold and Purple were the official colors of the American suffrage movement.
2) WIlliam and Mary Lavender, "Suffragists' Storm over Washington." American History, October 2003, vol. 38 Is. 4 p. 32.
3) LInda Ford, p. 145
4) William and Mary Lavender, p. 10
5) Linda Ford, p. 146
6) Linda Ford, p. 147
7) Linda Ford, p. 148
8) William and Mary Lavender, p.
9) Appendix A takes a took at the variety within the women who were incarcerated for this cause.
10) Christine A. Lunardini, p. 132.
11) Linda Ford, p. 169

1 comment:

  1. Abby, this is an excellent reflection and even better history lesson. Thank you.