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Beauty rises from a Virginia prison where violence against suffragists changed history

Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Travel News

SILENT SENTINELS

Before any discussion about the history of the right to vote, note that the U.S. women who fought for it are called suffragists, not suffragettes.

It is a distinction with a difference: In Britain, suffragettes, as they were called there, used more radical means to attract attention to the cause, including property damage and demonstrations.

But Alice Paul, a Quaker from New Jersey, believed that peaceful methods would win the day. That is why Paul, founder of the National Woman's Party; Lucy Burns, her right hand; and dozens of others picketed the White House using words as their weapons.

Their strategy: Embarrass President Woodrow Wilson into paying attention, not just giving lip service, to their cause.

The Silent Sentinels, who often wore purple, gold and white sashes, the colors of the National Woman's Party, began carrying banners as 1917 unfurled. Those words stung Wilson, who was preoccupied with World War I.

 

"Kaiser Wilson," one banner said, "have you forgotten your sympathy with the poor Germans because they were not self-governed? 20,000,000 American women are not self-governed. Take the beam out of your own eye."

The arrests of the picketers began a couple of months after the U.S. entered the war that April. They were charged with obstructing traffic, absurd given that they were standing on the sidewalk outside the presidential home.

On Nov. 13, more than 30 Sentinels were arrested around the White House, and by 5 p.m. the next day, many were on their way to the Occoquan Workhouse. (Paul remained in a District of Columbia jail, presumably because her opponents wanted to separate the head from what they perceived as the snake.)

Four hours later, Occoquan Superintendent W.H. Whittaker set his guards upon the women. Dora Lewis, thrown into a cell, hit her head on an iron bed. Cellmate Alice Cosu thought Lewis was dead (she survived) and suffered a heart attack.

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