Our Debt to the Community Organizers Known as Suffragists

By Connie Schultz

September 9, 2008 5 min read

Since the beginning of the year, the same e-mail has been forwarded to me routinely by readers who care deeply about women's right to vote.

The e-mails have a variety of introductions and final paragraphs, but the meat of the message is always the same and always without attribution. Nevertheless, I am reminded of the writer every time I read the original first paragraph: "The women were innocent and defenseless. And by the end of the night, they were barely alive."

That was the beginning of my column titled "And you think it's a pain to vote," which ran in Cleveland's Plain Dealer Feb. 19, 2004. I wrote it after watching a preview of HBO's movie "Iron Jawed Angels."

It's been gratifying but also a little weird to watch the evolution of this column. One newspaper in Illinois sent a frantic apology after publishing the column under the byline of a freelancer who had submitted it as her own. Hundreds of bloggers have posted it over the years, almost always attributing it to an anonymous writer. On Monday alone, three different people sent it to me, including a longtime friend.

Ah, well. What matters most is that the story of the suffragists — community organizers, every last one of them — continues to inspire so many. So, with edits for space and clarity, here it is again. By all means, feel free to pass it on:


The women were innocent and defenseless. And by the end of the night, they were barely alive.

Forty prison guards wielding clubs and their warden's blessing went on a rampage against the 33 helpless women wrongly convicted of "obstructing sidewalk traffic."

They beat Lucy Burn, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head and left her hanging for the night, bleeding and gasping for air.

They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, thought Lewis was dead and suffered a heart attack.

Additional affidavits describe the guards grabbing, dragging, beating, choking, slamming, pinching, twisting and kicking the women.

Thus unfolded the "Night of Terror" on Nov. 15, 1917, when the warden at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia ordered his guards to teach a lesson to the suffragists imprisoned there because they dared to picket Woodrow Wilson's White House for the right to vote.

For weeks, the women's only water came from an open pail. Their food?— all of it colorless slop — was infested with worms. When one of the leaders, Alice Paul, embarked on a hunger strike, they 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 word was smuggled out to the press.

So, refresh my memory.

Some women won't vote this year because, why exactly? We have carpool duties? We have to get to work? Our vote doesn't matter? It's raining?

HBO's "Iron Jawed Angels" is a graphic depiction of the battle these women waged so that I could pull the curtain at the polling booth and have my say. I am ashamed to say I needed the reminder.

There was a time when I knew these women well. I met them in college — not in my required American history courses, which barely mentioned them, but in women's history class.

That's where I found the irrepressibly brave Alice Paul. Her large, brooding eyes seemed fixed on my own as she stared out from the page.

Remember , she silently beckoned. Remember .

The HBO movie is now available on DVD. I wish all history, social studies and government teachers would include the movie in their curriculum.

I want it shown on Bunko night, too, and anywhere else women gather. I realize this isn't our usual idea of socializing, but we are not voting in the numbers that we should be, and a little shock therapy is in order. It is jarring to watch Woodrow Wilson and his cronies try to persuade a psychiatrist to declare Alice Paul insane so that she could be permanently institutionalized.

And it is inspiring to watch the doctor refuse. Alice Paul was strong, he said, and brave. That didn't make her crazy.

The doctor admonished the men: "Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity."

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books from Random House: "Life Happens" and "… and His Lovely Wife." To find out more about Connie Schultz ([email protected]) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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