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A 90 year old story

May 31, 2012

The establishment irritates you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight because once they’ve got you violent they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humour. – John Lennon

In school, as we were being mass miss-instructed, we were asked to memorize a few facts – India is a democratic nation. US is a 3oo year old democracy. Today as I begin to understand the word, I realize that none of the so called democratic nations are anywhere close to being a democracy. Let alone the nations, of which I understand very little, I have yet to see families that are not autocratic but purely democratic in nature.

Here is a story of a group of women who added first of the few bricks in the structure of democracy and the price they had to pay for that – a story of women who fought for the right to vote, a right which imbues a more fundamental right, that to be acknowledged as an equal –

It all started on January 10, 1917 when a group of women began a non-violent protest against the White House standing silently by the gates, carrying purple, white and gold banners saying ‘Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?’ They were being lead by Alice Paul who had started National Women’s Party (NWP). The first day 12 women marched in a slow, square movement so passers-by could see the banners. Over the next few months, more women joined the protest.

At first they were politely ignored, but then the signs became more and more pointed. One banner read: ‘Democracy Should Begin at Home.’ Meanwhile World War I had begun. They asked, how could the President fight to help disenfranchised people when he had disenfranchised people at home? They were becoming an embarrassment for the government.

Unable to bear the protest, men began assaulting these women both verbally and physically, while the police did nothing to protect them. Then in June 1917, the police began arresting them on charges of ‘obstructing traffic.’ First they were sentenced to a few days’ jail terms. But the protest kept growing, and the jail terms grew longer. Finally, to try to break their spirit, the police arrested Alice Paul on October 20, 1917, and she was sentenced to seven months in prison. The banner she carried that day said:

‘The time has come to conquer or submit, for us there can be but one choice. We have made it.’ (President Wilson’s words)

Alice was placed in solitary confinement for two weeks and immediately began a hunger strike. Unable to walk on her release from there, she was taken to the prison hospital. Others joined the hunger strike. ‘It was the strongest weapon left with which we could continue our battle” she later said. Then the prison officials put Alice in the ‘psychopathic’ ward, hoping to discredit her as insane. They deprived her of sleep — she had an electric light, directed at her face, turned on briefly every hour, every night. And they continually threatened to transfer her to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a notorious asylum as suffering a ‘mania of persecution’. But she still refused to eat. During the last week of her 22-day hunger strike, the doctors brutally forced a tube into her nose and down her throat, pouring liquids into her stomach, three times a day for three weeks. Despite the pain and illness this caused, Alice refused to end the hunger strike. One physician reported:

‘She has a spirit like Joan of Arc, and it is useless to try to change it. She will die but she will never give up.’

It is jarring to see how Woodrow Wilson and his cronies tried to persuade a psychiatrist to declare Alice Paul insane so that she could be permanently institutionalized. But the doctor refused. 

Hundreds of women were arrested, with 33 women convicted and thrown into Occoquan Workhouse. These women suffered unimaginable torture in the prison. They ate rancid food; were denied medical care and refused visitors. The demonstrators applied for political prisoner status. It was denied. Doris Stevens, one of the prisoners, later wrote –

‘No woman there will ever forget the shock and the hot resentment that rushed over her when she was told to undress before the entire company … We silenced our impulse to resist this indignity, which grew more poignant as each woman nakedly walked across the great vacant space to the door less shower’

Viginia Bovee, an officer at the Workhouse, stated in an affidavit after her discharge:

‘The beans, hominy, rice, corn meal … and cereal have all had worms in them. Sometimes the worms float to the top of the soup. Often they are found in the corn bread.’

These women kept resisting and the government grew more and more hostile. Finally on November 15, 1917, (or some say Nov. 14, the date doesn’t matter) became known as the Night of Terror at the Workhouse. 40 prison guards wielding clubs and their wardens blessing went on a rampage against the 33 women, which included one 73 year old woman –

‘As many as forty guards with clubs went on a rampage, brutalizing thirty-three jailed suffragists. They beat Lucy Burns, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head, and left her there, bleeding, for the night. They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed, and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, who believed Mrs. Lewis to be dead, suffered a heart attack. According to affidavits, other women were grabbed, dragged, beaten, choked, slammed, pinched, twisted, and kicked.’

[Barbara Leaming, Katherine Hepburn. New York: Crown Publishers, 1995. Page 182]

By the end of the night the 33 women were barely alive.

It was only 3 years after the incident that women were granted the right to vote and the very first of the very few bricks in the structure of democracy was added proving what Margaret Mead had said was right –  A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

9 Comments leave one →
    • May 31, 2012 13:25

      I hope she would have said it with more rigor and more openly… We should say it more openly and do away with the myth the handful of us ‘middle class’ Indians are being broiled in.. If only for one day the oppressed millions were to pen down their stories, their news and their views themselves in their own language through their own medium and not through us, would the better understanding emerge…


      • May 31, 2012 13:38

        I wouldn’t pretend to understand the reasons for her diplomacy. And she has other, bigger battles to fight.

        And I am not sure why a better understanding would necessarily emerge among us when the other oppressed lot pens down its grief. Don’t we, by habit, treat all such recounting as propaganda serving the vested interests of some (political or otherwise) party or the other? Won’t our world view come in the way of recognizing whatever truth those stories might hold?

        As an example, quite a few time, already, my friends have accused me of being a communist, an anti-progress maniac on account of what I write. What I write is my truth, but not theirs..! Just like it is the truth of the millions, and not the billions.

        The one way I gather the understanding would emerge is slowly, through actions, through living what we write, and through living it honestly. That is my working principle for now!

        On another note, it would be good to read your experiments with democracy at CFL. That would indeed help some of us understand 🙂


  1. May 31, 2012 13:45

    All you can do is pen down your thoughts, carry out your actions.. You really have no control over who takes what from it, who benefits, who discards them, who praises you, and who vilifies you.. So kudos to your working principle 🙂 Democracy at places like CFL, yes would love to write on it sometime, sometime when I am more clear.

    Here is an interesting quote – Until Lions write their own history, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter


    • June 1, 2012 12:57

      A fancy way of saying that ‘the winner writes the history’, but ok 😀 😀


  2. Sudha permalink
    May 31, 2012 14:07

    It hurts to see how little are we told of the other side ! I had no clue that these women had to go through this level of atrocity for such a fundamental right, a right that we so unduly discard !! Thanks for sharing their story.


    • June 14, 2012 13:23

      Could not agree more with you Sudha… The story was overwhelming and needed more light..


  3. June 13, 2012 17:04

    a group of thoughtful men/women can change the world…certainly.. usually it involves a huge amount of price to pay…


  4. DivX permalink
    June 17, 2012 01:07

    We, and more often, our politicians take our franchise for granted. This article shows just how many struggles go into making such a franchise open for all. The strange fact is that these stories are never told in the media. The clues to such stories are often found when they are searched for, and that only happens when one knows what to search for. For me, the search for details on suffragist movements started after I read a fiction title in which one such movement was mentioned in passing. Imagine the apathetic times we live in.


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