I will never forget the first time I voted. I was 18, and nervously walked into that polling booth with my parents. I was in awe that “my vote” might actually make a difference in choosing the leader of our country. It was an honor and privilege I have never taken lightly.
I lived in South Africa during the beginning of the fall of apartheid. Some months after my family had left that beautiful country, I sat weeping as I watched the news and saw an aerial photograph of thousands of black South Africans, who had never before been given the opportunity to vote, lined up for miles, eager to let the world know their opinion!
Then I watched “Iron Jawed Angels,” the story of how the ‘right of women to vote’ came to be in this country. “Aghast” doesn’t describe it well enough. I was angry! Brave and incredibly courageous women suffered torture and death so that I can vote today. These women from the 1900’s were ground breakers, standing up to an obnoxious Woodrow Wilson, and in 1920, they WON. But at such terrible cost.
There weren’t very many of them, just a handful of 33 women who stood defenseless in front of the White House, carrying signs asking for the right to vote. This protest was first seen by the men who passed by as humorous, but when these men realized that the women were serious, that they truly wanted equality in the election booth, that laughter turned to outrage and the women were carted off to spend their first night in detention. By the end of that first night, the infamous “Night of Terror” of November 15, 1917 at the Occoquana workhouse in Virginia, a few of those women were barely alive. With their prison warden’s blessing, forty prison guards wielding clubs had taken out their frustrations on the 33 women who had been wrongly convicted of obstructing sidewalk traffic.
Alice Paul led the suffrage movement. She was placed in solitary confinement and, when she went on a hunger strike to protest the treatment of her sisters in prison, she was held down, tied to a chair, and force fed for three weeks using tubes shoved down into her stomach while she struggled. I can’t imagine how much pain she felt.
After they beat Lucy Burns, they chained her hands to the cell bars above her head and left her hanging for the night, bleeding and broken.
Dora Lewis received some of the most brutal treatment at the hands of wardens at the District jail and the Occoquan Workhouse. During the infamous “Night of Terror” of November 15, 1917, Lewis was hurled bodily into her cell. She was knocked unconscious and feared dead when she collided headfirst against her iron bed frame. Lewis and Lucy Burns were initial leaders of the hunger strike in Occoquan; both grew so weak that they were also held down by attendants and force-fed through a tube.
Additional recorded statements from other prisoners describe the guards as brutally choking, pinching, kicking the women, twisting their arms behind their backs. Sexual abuse can only be assumed, but considering sexual abuse is all about the abuse of power and not the act of sex, it is more than likely that these women were victimized in this way as well. There is no other way to describe it: these women, and others, were tortured.
As you have read the papers over these past months, and have listened to the debates and now criticize the banter, never forget.
As you consider getting out of your bed a few minutes earlier so you can go to the polls on the way to work, never forget.
As you wonder if it is really worth it to find a babysitter for an hour so you can drive into town to place your vote tomorrow, on election day, never forget.
Lives were sacrificed so that WE WOMEN could participate in choosing the leadership of this country. Never forget.