(WOMENSENEWS)–American women’s patriotic duty in wartime is to be silent about everything except support for the troops and the Commander in Chief. That was the general idea in 1917.
As Woodrow Wilson took office in January, demonstrators took up positions outside the White House, holding round-the-clock vigils demanding the vote for women. In spite of the on-going world war, they refused to step aside or muffle their demands.
Instead, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns and other members of the National Woman’s Party aimed to humiliate the president and expose the hypocrisy of "making the world safe for democracy" when there was none at home. Their banners said, "Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty." They hung Wilson in effigy and burned copies of his speeches.
Arrests began in June. "Obstructing traffic" was the usual charge, but many prison officials–as well as citizens–considered the suffragists traitors. In the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, they ate rancid food; were denied medical care and refused visitors. The demonstrators applied for political prisoner status. It was denied.
But the government’s tactic didn’t work. On release from prison, women returned to the White House gates. Their ranks swelled. By November, there were more marches and more arrests. An investigation had been launched into conditions at Occoquan and the activities of its superintendent, W.H. Whittaker, whose special cruelty was well known.
Whittaker and his workhouse guards greeted 33 returning protestors on what has become known as the infamous "Night of Terror," November 14, 1917. Forty-four club-wielding men beat, kicked, dragged and choked their charges, which included at least one 73-year-old woman. Women were lifted into the air and flung to the ground. One was stabbed between the eyes with the broken staff of her banner. Lucy Burns was handcuffed to the bars of her cell in a torturous position. Women were dragged by guards twisting their arms and hurled into concrete "punishment cells."
For all the pain, this brutal night may have turned the tide. Less than two weeks later, a court-ordered hearing exposed the beaten women to the world and the judge agreed they had been terrorized for nothing more than exercising their constitutional right to protest. It would take three more years to win the vote, but the courageous women of 1917 had won a new definition of female patriotism.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called "The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change." She can be reached at [email protected].