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The Night of Terror: When Suffragists Were Imprisoned and Tortured in 1917

March 4, 2019 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

After peacefully demonstrating in front of the White House, 33 women endured a night of brutal beatings.

Dorothy Day was described by her fellow suffragists as a “frail girl.” Yet on the night of November 14, 1917, prison guards at the Occoquan Workhouse, did not hold back after she and 32 other women had been arrested several days earlier for picketing outside the White House.

“The two men handling her were twisting her arms above her head. Then suddenly they lifted her up and banged her down over the arm of an iron bench—twice,” recalled 73-year-old Mary Nolan, the oldest of the prisoners, in an . “By the time you get to that November night, the Silent Sentinels have been picketing outside the White House for more than 10 months.”

At first, Wilson tolerated the women’s protests, smiling at them as he passed and even inviting them in for coffee (they turned him down). But things began to change after the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, and the NWP chose to continue picketing the White House, even as the mainstream suffrage movement, led by NAWSA’s Carrie Chapman Catt, threw its support behind the war effort.

National Woman’s Party members being arrested as they picket with banners before the White House East Gate, in August 1917.

A Cat-and-Mouse Game

Amid the wartime furor, many people began viewing the Silent Sentinels as unforgivably unpatriotic. Onlookers sometimes attacked the women and ripped their signs from their hands, while Wilson himself wrote to his daughter in June that the suffragists “seem bent on making their cause as obnoxious as possible.”

That same month, police began arresting the suffragists for obstructing traffic. At first, the women were released quickly, and without penalty, but soon the courts began handing out prison time. But the women kept coming back.

“One of the things that we need to give them credit for is that they knew, after June, that when they were on the picket line they could be arrested, and they could go to jail,” Ware points out. “This was something that respectable white women didn’t usually do.”

Tensions were running much higher by August, when the Sentinels rolled out a new banner accusing “Kaiser Wilson” of autocracy, followed by three days of attacks by an angry mob and police and the sentencing of six women to 60-day prison terms. …read more

Source: HISTORY

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