Thursday, August 24, 2017

The American suffrage "Prison Special" speaking tour of 1919

Most Americans don't know that the first people to protest in front of the White House--now a resistance tradition--were the suffragists, fighting for equality and votes for women in the early 20th century. The American suffragists were rather less violent than their British counterparts; dubbed "the Silent Sentinels," they stood in front of the White House quietly, holding gigantic banners with protest messages--often, with President Woodrow Wilson's own words on them. Some 2,000 sentinels joined this protest, which began in 1917. Starting in June of that year, the arrests began, sending the Sentinels to a prison in Occuquan, Virginia; you can see a list of the prisoners here. Often, they responded with hunger strikes, and were then force fed by their jailers; in November, the prison superintendent ordered guards to beat, choke, and attack the suffragists.

Silence may have marked the start of these public protests, but public speaking was the campaign's next tactic. The plight of the prisoners captured public and media attention, and the suffragists, who were brilliant public relations strategists of their day, understood how to take advantage of it. By March of 1918, all of the suffragist arrests and imprisonments had been declared unconstitutional by a court of appeals. But the suffragists were not done. Not quite a year later, the proposed 19th Amendment that would give U.S. women the vote was defeated in the U.S. Senate. The House had passed it, the President had signaled support, but no one was pushing the states to ratify it, a necessary and major task. To make a final push to re-rally Senate support and get states to sign on to the legislation, the suffragists planned an ambitious public speaking tour. It's an historic moment for women in public speaking.

The 'Prison Special:' One last push for women's suffrage describes the tour at its start:
They called it "Democracy Limited," but the public immediately dubbed the three-week suffrage tour of February 1919 "The Prison Special." Its purpose? Make one last push for suffrage by harnessing the power of personal narrative. Its focus? The inhumane prison sentences served by so many women who fought for the vote.

The concept was relatively simple: the tour's slogan was "From Prison to People" and the train traveled the nation, packed with 26 members of the National Women's Party. When they arrived at their destination, they would don uniforms like the ones they were forced to wear at the Occoquan Workhouse, the prison that would eventually house over 150 suffragists. Alice Paul was force-fed egg yolks and placed in solitary confinement in a psychiatric ward. There, women were beaten, dragged, kicked, and even knocked unconscious by guards unsympathetic to the crowds. Now the same women brought their tales of incarceration and unsanitary, shocking conditions to the public, concluding with passionate pleas for President Wilson to act at last.
You could consider the 'Prison Special' a precursor to the Moth or a traveling TED conference, with speaker after speaker sharing her personal story of imprisonment. And after hearing that, who could say their task--voting to give women the vote--was more difficult? They traveled the length and breadth of the continental United States, from Charleston and New Orleans to Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, and more.

The tour was not a joyride. The women faced limits placed on them by the railroad authority; they had wanted a prison door mounted on their train car, but the authority forbade any sign that they were aboard. There were sometimes violent counter-protests along the way. But they spoke to large crowds in city after city. The 'Prison Special' tour had a spectacular end, winding up its 23-day tour in New York City with a pageant at Carnegie Hall and a crowd of 3,500 people. Best of all, it did the trick, prompting Senate approval of the legislation in mid-1919. By 1920, the 19th Amendment had been ratified by enough states to make women's votes the law of the land, nationwide.

If you're visiting Washington, DC, you can hear and see more about the Prison Special speaking tour at the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument. The house is the former home of the National Women's Party, after it left its headquarters across the street from the White House on Jackson Place. Don't miss the tour; you can see the massive fabric appliqued banners carried by the protestors in front of the White House, and many artifacts from the suffragists' work over many decades.

(All photos from the Library of Congress collection of records from the National Women's Party. From top to bottom: Speakers on the 'Prison Special' tour, San Francisco, 1919; suffragist Lucy Branham in Occoquan prison dress, speaking at an outdoor meeting during the 'Prison Special' tour, 1919; Mary Winsor of Pennsylvania, holding the suffrage prisoners banner in 1917; baggage for the 'Prison Special,' piled up in front of NWP headquarters on Jackson Place, Washington, DC)

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