Monday, December 24, 2012

The Bitter Fight for Women's Rights


      No one has yet discovered what caused a bohemian enclave to spring up in the northwestern corner of Westchester County in the first decade of the 20th century.
The seed may have been sown when the New York Central Railroad decided to completely electrify its 33-mile Hudson Division line all the way to the village ofCroton-on-Hudson, making commuting easier.
An increasingly dire economic picture for hardscrabble farms and orchards in the hilly countryside north and east of Croton put many inexpensive rural properties on the market.
Real estate developer Clifford B. Harmon bought a major chunk of the Van Cortlandt estate from two descendants of the original manor owner. After selling a portion to the railroad for its shops, he divided the remainder into affordable small lots to create the tight little community he named after himself.
Soon a motley collection of artists, writers, journalists, poets, feminists, anarchists, socialists and labor leaders was trekking north from Greenwich Village, and fanning out through the countryside in search of seasonal rentals.
Three remarkable women joined this exodus and took part in the fight to gain women the right to vote by organizing, exposing male oppression and defying the law. Their names were Inez Milholland, Crystal Eastman and Doris Stevens. They had several qualities in common.
They were all passionately devoted to the cause of women's suffrage. One gave her life to the cause. Two were arrested and served time in jail. All lived in Croton, shopped in its modest stores and walked its hills. Their sacrifices deserve to be recognized and remembered by a village rich in history, but devoid of historical markers attesting to its bohemian past. Their stirring stories will be recounted in coming issues of Postscripts. 

Not So Equal
      Although the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence reads, "All men are created equal," women quickly discovered that the founding fathers meant exactly what they said in those ringing words: Equality applied only to men--or more specifically, only to white men. Women would have to wait almost 150 years before the principles espoused in that historic document were applied to them.
The Declaration of Independence also says that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Despite this high-sounding sentiment, women were excluded from the voting booth.
In the 1840s feminists began to protest the unfair treatment of women by men, beginning with laws that blocked women from owning property. In addition to not being allowed to vote, a married woman could not sign contracts, control her own earnings or inherited property, or be the legal guardian of her children.
The first women's suffrage amendment to the Constitution drafted by Susan B. Anthony was introduced into Congress in 1878, but failed to pass. By 1912, six states, all in the Far West, had granted women the right to vote. They represented only 38 of 531 electoral votes.
The struggle for women's suffrage in the U.S. reached a peak during the First World War. Alice Paul, a self-effacing activist and social reformer, deserves credit for devising the strategy that won the right to vote for women. Impatient with the ultra-conservative policies of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (which later became the League of Women Voters), with Lucy Burns she founded the Congressional Union, soon renamed the National Woman's Party. Not a political party, it was actually a feminist pressure group organized to sway Congress.
Their differences were largely tactical. Paul’s strategy was to hold the political party in power responsible for the failure to achieve the vote for women. This, of course, was the Democratic Party and President Woodrow Wilson, elected in 1912 and re-elected in 1916. Furious with Wilson for refusing to meet with suffragist delegations, Paul, a Quaker and a firm believer in civil disobedience, decided on a bold tactic.

The Silent Sentinels Appear
      On the morning of January 10, 1917, a strange sight greeted passersby on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue. Holding banners, women called "Sentinels of Liberty" appeared in front of the White House. "Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?" read one banner. "How long must women wait for liberty?" read another. Alice Paul announced that the picketing sentinels would remain day and night until women achieved the vote, regardless of the weather or public reaction.
Initially, the government regarded the silent, implacable women as little more than a nuisance. By June, losing patience, the government began to jail militant suffragists.  Unable to specify what laws had been violated by their peaceful, round-the-clock vigils; the government charged them with "obstruction of traffic"--at best, a misdemeanor. Most arrested women were jailed for three days.
Now, Paul began a second stage of militancy. Pickets displayed new banners critical of Wilson. One was especially galling, calling him "Kaiser Wilson," a play on the name of the German ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm.
The government's response to this was to impose harsher sentences of 60 days. Moreover, these were served not in the district jail but in the filthy and rat-infested Occoquan Workhouse across the Potomac. This almost medieval institution was ruled by a sadistic superintendent, Raymond Whittaker, who threatened that he would end the picketing “even if it cost some women their lives.” One prisoner, Peggy Baird Johns, a newspaper writer, suggested that fellow prisoners should demand recognition as political prisoners.
The government showed its growing irritation with Alice Paul by slapping her with a seven-month sentence and Lucy Burns with six months, the severest yet handed down. When Paul began a hunger strike, she was placed in the psychiatric ward and fed forcibly through a tube inserted in her mouth or nose three times a day.

Brutal Treatment
      On November 10, 1917, 33 women picketing the White House to protest Alice Paul's treatment were injured.  Two soldiers brutally assaulted picketing Boston matron Agnes Morey and jabbed her broken and splintered banner pole between her eyes. Dora Lewis, a Philadelphia grandmother, was manhandled by three young hooligans.
At the jail, Lucy Burns was targeted for especially rough treatment. She was beaten and her wrists were handcuffed high on her cell door. In sympathy, another prisoner, Julia Emory, stood in the same position.
Among the arrested pickets was Dorothy Day, a candidate for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Her 1952 autobiography, The Long Loneliness,described the inhumane treatment of prisoners at the workhouse as she experienced it.
Guards twisted her arms above her head and then twice threw her down over the arm of an iron bench, bruising her back and shoulders. By morning, she was sick and hysterical. No medical treatment was offered to any of the injured women.
In March of 1918, the Federal Court of Appeals decided that the women who had been arrested in 1917, many of whom had served several months in jail, had been tried and imprisoned under no existing law, yet no redress was made to them.
Starting on New Year's Day in 1919, "watchfires" burning in small urns became a fixture in women's rights demonstrations. (The first watchfire was started with kindling wood brought from the sites of historic battlefields.) It was announced that the fires would be kept burning until victory was achieved.
Julia Ward Howe's stirring "Battle Hymn of the Republic" has a line about "the watchfires of a hundred circling camps." It became an anthem of the suffragist movement. The fires were not only symbolic; they also gave warmth in bitterly cold weather.
Alice Paul continued to keep pressure on Wilson to speak out for women's suffrage by nonviolent acts of militancy wherever he went. When the president came to New York in March of 1919 to speak at the Metropolitan Opera House, a contingent of women bearing banners marched to the building on Broadway between 39th and 40th streets. Intercepted by 200 of New York's "finest," the women were knocked down and clubbed into bloody submission. Charged with "assaulting the police," they were eventually released.
The militant women's unrelenting efforts finally bore fruit on May 21, 1919, when Congress took the first step and passed an amendment giving women the right to vote. An affirmative Senate vote followed on June 4. It then was up to 36 of the 48 states to ratify the 19th Amendment. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state, making the vote for women the law of the land.
Ironically, the text of what became the 19th Amendment contained exactly the same words Susan B. Anthony had penned 42 years earlier in 1878.

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