August 22, 2010 / Unity, Women's History

‘Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.’ – Women Get the Right to Vote


The following piece was originally posted on our blog on June 1, 2010.  Since so many of our new viewers have subsequently sent it our way since then, we are posting it again!

This is the story of our Mothers and our Grandmothers who lived only 90 years ago.


Remember, it was not until 1920 that women were granted the right to go to the polls and vote.


The women were innocent and defenseless, but they were jailed nonetheless for picketing the White House, carrying signs asking for the vote.


(Lucy Burns)

And by the end of the night, they were barely alive. Forty prison guards wielding clubs and their warden’s blessing went on a rampage against the 33 women wrongly convicted of ‘obstructing sidewalk traffic.’

They beat Lucy Burns, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head and left her hanging for the night, bleeding and gasping for air.

(Dora Lewis)

They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, thought Lewis was dead and suffered a heart attack. Additional affidavits describe the guards grabbing, dragging, beating, choking, slamming, pinching, twisting and kicking the women.

Thus unfolded the Night of Terror on November 15, 1917, when the warden at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia ordered his guards to teach a lesson to the suffragists imprisoned there because they dared to picket Woodrow Wilson’s White House for the right to vote. For weeks, the women’s only water came from an open pail. Their food–all of it colorless slop–was infested with worms.

(Alice Paul)

When one of the leaders, Alice Paul, embarked on a hunger strike, they tied her to a chair, forced a tube down her throat and poured liquid into her until she vomited. She was tortured like this for weeks until word was smuggled out to the press.

So, refresh my memory. Some women won’t vote this year because
why, exactly? We have carpool duties? We have to get to work? Our vote doesn’t matter? It’s raining?

(Mrs. Pauline Adams in the prison garb she wore while serving a sixty-day sentence.)

Last week, I went to a sparsely attended screening of HBO’s new movie ‘Iron Jawed Angels.’ It is a graphic depiction of the battle these women waged so that I could pull the curtain at the polling booth and have my say. I am ashamed to say I needed the reminder.

(Miss Edith Ainge, of Jamestown , New York )

All these years later, voter registration is still my passion. But the actual act of voting had become less personal for me, more rote. Frankly, voting often felt more like an obligation than a privilege. Sometimes it was inconvenient.


(Berthe Arnold, CSU graduate)

My friend Wendy, who is my age and studied women’s history, saw the HBO movie, too. When she stopped by my desk to talk about it, she looked angry. She was–with herself. ‘One thought kept coming back to me as I watched that movie,’ she said. ‘What would those women think of the way I use, or don’t use, my right to vote? All of us take it for granted now, not just younger women, but those of us who did seek to learn.’ The right to vote, she said, had become valuable to her ‘all over again.’

HBO released the movie on video and DVD . I wish all history, social studies and government teachers would include the movie in their curriculum I want it shown on Bunco night, too, and anywhere else women gather. I realize this isn’t our usual idea of socializing, but we are not voting in the numbers that we should be, and I think a little shock therapy is in order.


(Conferring over ratification [of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution] at [National Woman’s Party] headquarters, Jackson Pl [ace] [ Washington , D.C. ]. L-R Mrs. Lawrence Lewis, Mrs. Abby Scott Baker, Anita Pollitzer, Alice Paul, Florence Boeckel, Mabel Vernon (standing, right))

It is jarring to watch Woodrow Wilson and his cronies try to persuade a psychiatrist to declare Alice Paul insane so that she could be permanently institutionalized. And it is inspiring to watch the doctor refuse. Alice Paul was strong, he said, and brave. That didn’t make her crazy.

The doctor admonished the men: ‘Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.’

Please, if you are so inclined, pass this on to all the women you know.  We need to get out and vote and use this right that was fought so hard for by these very courageous women. Whether you vote  Democratic, Republican or Independent party – remember to vote.


(Helena Hill Weed, Norwalk , Conn. Serving 3 day sentence in D.C. prison for carrying banner, ‘Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.’)

History is being made.

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  • Ellis

    Once I complained about working a 14-hour day as a election assistant and having just 4% turnout in my precinct. My then supervisor (biologically a woman) responded with, “the nice thing about being an American is, you don’t HAVE to vote.”

    She is also a Queen Bee and liked to say, “Boy, I wish there were more men in the building”. It makes one wonder why she chose to make a second career as a librarian. Perhaps it was a case of the wolf among the sheep.

  • This is a gorgeous photo essay and I’m glad to see it here.

  • I’m wondering if while in jail, these women argued about which amongst them was worthy of being labeled a “feminist” (said tongue in cheek)!

  • Actually, Amy, you’d be surprised. Carrie Chapman Catt frequently criticized the Paul/Burns approach, and accused of them setting back the cause of suffragists across the nation. Thank goodness Paul & Burns did not listen to her and her supporters! By the end of it all, Catt was on board, of course.

  • Oy AB!

    It’s going to be a long journey to unity. Fasten your seat belts!

  • And it goes on, of course. Here’s PBS arguing that it was Catt was the actual force behind the 19th amendment, not Paul. That’s a blatant lie, and the events of history show it was Paul and her campaign, which culminated in the Night of Terror that ultimately brought into being the 19th amendment.

    The truth, of course lies somewhere in between. Doubtless Paul’s methos would not have worked without decades of Catt’s softening up the powers that be. Doubtless Catt’s gentle approach would have failed miserably without Paul’s in your face tactics.

    The divisions in feminism today have deep roots, going back even before the Catt-Paul rhetorical wars, to the 14th amendment. I blogged about that here way back:

  • Valentina

    I saw in the Dallas Museum a photo of a woman (more recent) in the 50s who was in jail with her baby in her arms, for protesting for her rights. The amazing thing is that she was smiling, as if she couldn’t be happier anywhere else. That really caught my attention, and I wish I had a camera with me.

  • Valentina

    Amy, this photo essay is so beautiful… You give credit to many of the women who participated, and imply them all.

    I sent it to my family (everywhere) and friends.

  • Bes

    I think it is more important that female voices are heard than that we speak with one voice.

  • Valentina

    Wow Bes, you should coin that one!

  • Great story Valentina – yes, it is inspiring to fight for what you believe in!

    Bes – great quote!

  • Janis

    Sorry, but after having my vote effectively invalidated in 2000 and then flat-out STOLEN in 2008 … I just do not see how marking that piece of paper matters. It means as much as voting did in the old Soviet Union. If voting were honest and counted and up-front, it would be a wonderful thing. It’s not. Until elections are honest, it is an empty gesture, and it sickens me to think that those women went through that hell for my own ex-party to invalidate my choice by giving my vote to a cheating, corrupt, snide, insulting son of a bitch out in the open — and be fellated by the world media for it.

    Voting means VERY LITTLE unless clean elections are insured.

  • Recovered Demoholic

    Brought to you by the Democratic Party: Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama.

    Congratulations again on the AAP retraction of ‘surgical nick.’ Still no word from MSM.

  • Kathleen Wynne


    I think it relevant to point out, since these women sacrificed and suffered terribly, to get women the right to vote that they would also be just as adamant and committed to making certain our votes were being counted as cast!

    What’s the point of an election if our votes can be stolen and manilpulated because America has non-transparent elections? Be advised that those of us who have fought for years to achieve “meaningful” election reform were trumped by the German people in achieving this goal. They banned e-voting because the German Constitution considers “secret” vote counting (which is done inside the voting machine’s software) and/or in the back room by party leaders and those hired by them to count the votes out of sight of the average citizen.

    What baffles me is that the American people still believe that our elections are just fine, when all the evidence is there that someone like GW Bush can get into the WH for two terms and then the obama campaign can game the caucus system and then have the DNC Rules and By-laws committee break their own rules to award obama delegates he didn’t earn in order to “give” him the nomination.

    I’m certain these extraordinary and brave women patriots would agree with me when I assert that unless the American people recognize, as the German people did, that a democratic republic simply cannot exist unless the average citizen’s human right to see their votes being counted is protected and secured, then we are living in a sham democracy and very well explains why we are in the horrific mess we are in today with a corrupt government which has blatantly betrayed us for decades. They do this because they know “you can’t vote them out, if you didn’t vote them in.”

  • franziska

    that was cruel what they did to the suffragists says my daughter

    however, we had a discussion on comparing the fight against slavery with the one for women’s rights. the school kids of course think the first was a more important cause. the situation of women in the 17th and 18th century which had quite some similarities to slavery is unknown to them. the discussion then goes: ” women weren’t flagellated by their masters everyday”. “not every slave was. such cruelty depended whether you had a good or bad master, a good or bad husband”.
    as far as I know white women in the 17th or 18th century were not sold as children on the market. a couple centuries earlier they were forced into marriage as children.

  • Janis

    “as far as I know white women in the 17th or 18th century were not sold as children on the market”

    They were in the 19th. My grandmother was. Don’t talk to me about slavery and how white people can’t understand.

  • yttik

    Thanks for the photo essay!

    I share your frustration about not having votes counted, Janis. I got really discouraged years ago in a local election full of nonsense and swore off voting for good. But after a few weeks I realized that if they’re going to steal my vote, they damn well better have to work for it. And if they’re going to cheat my candidates out of primaries, they’re going to have to look me in the face while they’re doing it. I campaigned and caucused for Hillary, knowing the deck was stacked against her, knowing there was corruption going on, but I’d do it all again. And those Dems who looked at me all smug, sure aren’t looking so smug today.

    The thing about having the right to vote is that it isn’t just about marking a little box on a piece of paper, it’s about throwing a wrench in the best laid plans of tyrants and thugs. You don’t win very often, but you make their job a lot more difficult.

  • marille

    we went to the Alice Paul Institute to day for their annual celebration of womens equality day. the 90 years of voting and the new biography of Alice Paul by Mary Walton “A woman’s crucade, Alice Paul and the battle for the ballot. The author was there and introduced her book. they had actually a former women’s history student there who interviewed Alice Paul several times and the nurse who cared for her during her last 2 months of life.
    New jersey politicians were there, Robert Menendez who wants to give Alice Paul a posthumous award, Congressman Adler who supports the ERA.
    Anna Belle this new biography could help to have PBS retract their movie and redo the story. I think it is dangerous how the record of the battle was falsified. last week in her NYT column “my favorite August” Gail Collins summed up the battle from 1913 to 1920 to that the nagging women got wilson to change his mind.

    it takes a lot more than nagging and begging to make a step forward for women.

  • I’m kind of surprised you haven’t dug a little deeper on this topic – as so many of your blog posts have been wonderful about rooting out bits of history we never hear about. Women (and black people!) in America could vote in 1776, as long as they owned property. They could vote for more than 30 years! And then this right was rescinded… and there is very little written about why that was.

    The 19th amendment is a good thing. But it’s also good to remember the U.S. was founded on equality.

  • Jan, thanks for the comment. As the resident women’s historian here, here are is my thinking on your comment:

    It really isn’t as easy as women who could own property could vote for 30 years. A very few women could vote in some places, never for 30 straight years, and those rights were sometimes granted, sometimes not, depending on who was controlling the voting booth. Remember that very few women could even own property, and those that did were almost universally widows. A woman had to get married and lose a husband and then refuse to marry again to own property. If she remarried, her property became his property and there went her right to vote. So I don’t consider it true women’s suffrage. It was almost like these women inherited their husband’s right to vote, or at least that’s how it was seen. Nowhere were women able to vote in enough numbers to manifest a feeling that they were able to affect political change, or even receive governance that considered their issues.

    Because of all these issues, it is a difficult subject to develop. A presentation of it as something we “lost” is not accurate, and neither is it appropriate to interpret this in any way as the founding fathers inclusion of women. It’s really more of a “look at this weird and largely meaningless anomaly.”

    And about our nation being founded on equality: I don’t believe the US was founded on equality. I believe the US was founded on the soon-to-be-realized dream of equality.

    The Declaration of Independence is a beautiful document, but it is only our founding document, not our governing document. The Declaration has always been at odds with our Constitution, and reconciling them has been the work of this nation for more than 200 years. Proud work, I think, because we have realized so much of what we dreamed of when we started, but that is largely the work of later generations.

    My 2 cents,