Suffragettes, Doris Stevens, 1917
The following passage is from a piece written by activist Doris Stevens, who describes the attitudes of some jailed suffragettes in 1917, and includes a letter of protest to the commissioners of the District of Columbia.
1. Finding that a Suffrage Committee in the House and a report in the Senate had not silenced our
2. banners, the administration cast about for another plan by which to stop the picketing. This time
3. they turned desperately to longer terms of imprisonment. They were, indeed, hard pressed
4. when they could choose such a cruel and stupid course.
5. Our answer to this policy was more women on the picket line on the outside, and a protest on
6. the inside of prison. We decided, in the face of extended imprisonment, to demand to be
7. treated as political prisoners.
8. We felt that, as a matter of principle, this was the dignified and self- respecting thing to do, since
9. we had offended politically, not criminally. We believed further that a determined, organized
10. effort to make clear to a wider public the political nature of the offense would intensify the
11. administration's embarrassment and so accelerate their final surrender.
12. It fell to Lucy Burns, vice-chairman of the organization, to be the leader of the new protest.
13. Miss Burns is in appearance the very symbol of woman in revolt. Her abundant and glorious
14. red hair burns and is not consumed — a flaming torch. Her body is strong and vital. It is said
15. that Lucy Stone had the “voice” of the pioneers. Lucy Burns without doubt possessed the
16. “voice” of the modern suffrage movement. Musical, appealing, persuading — she could move
17. the most resistant person. Her talent as an orator is of the kind that makes for instant intimacy
18. with her audience. Her emotional quality is so powerful that her intellectual capacity, which is
19. quite as great, is not always at once perceived. …
20. She had no sooner begun to organize her comrades for protest than the officials sensed a “plot”
21. and removed her at once to solitary confinement. But they were too late. Taking the leader
22. only hastened the rebellion. A forlorn piece of paper was discovered on which was written
23. their initial demand. It was then passed from prisoner to prisoner through holes in the wall
24. surrounding leaden pipes, until a finished document had been perfected and signed by all
25. the prisoners.
26. This historic document — historic because it represents the first organized group action ever
27. made in America to establish the status of political prisoners — said:
28. To the Commissioners of the District of Columbia:
29. As political prisoners, we, the undersigned, refuse to work while in prison. We have taken this
30. stand as a matter of principle after careful consideration, and from it we shall not recede.
31. This action is a necessary protest against an unjust sentence: In reminding President Wilson
32. of his preelection promises toward woman suffrage, we were exercising the right of peaceful
33. petition, guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, which declares peaceful picketing
34. is legal in the District of Columbia. That we are unjustly sentenced has been well recognized —
35. when President Wilson pardoned the first group of suffragists who had been given sixty days
36. in the workhouse, and again when Judge Mullowny suspended sentence for the last group of
37. picketers. We wish to point out the inconsistency and injustice of our sentences — some of us
38. have been given sixty days, a later group, thirty days, and another group given a suspended
39. sentence for exactly the same action.
40. Conscious, therefore, of having acted in accordance with the highest standards of citizenship,
41. we ask the commissioners of the District to grant us the rights due political prisoners. We
42. ask that we no longer be segregated and confined under locks and bars in small groups, but
43. permitted to see each other, and that Miss Lucy Burns, who is in full sympathy with this letter,
44. be released from solitary confinement in another building and given back to us.
45. We ask exemption from prison work, that our legal right to consult counsel be recognized,
46. to have food sent to us from outside, to supply ourselves with writing material for as much
47. correspondence as we may need, to receive books, letters, newspapers, our relatives and friends.
48. Our united demand for political treatment has been delayed, because, on entering the workhouse,
49. we found conditions so very bad that, before we could ask that the suffragists be treated as
50. political prisoners, it was necessary to make a stand for the ordinary rights of human beings for
51. all the inmates. Although this has not been accomplished, we now wish to bring the important
52. question of the status of political prisoners to the attention of the commissioners, who, we are
53. informed, have full authority to make what regulations they please for the District prison
54. and workhouse.
55. The commissioners are requested to send us a written reply so that we may be sure this
56. protest has reached them. …
57. The commissioners' only answer to this was a hasty transfer of the signers and the leader,
58. Miss Burns, to the District jail, where they were put in solitary confinement. The women
59. were not only refused the privileges asked but were denied some of the usual privileges
60. allowed to ordinary criminals.
Stevens, Doris. Jailed for Freedom. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920. 175-78. Print.
Based on the first paragraph (lines 1-4), what is the mission of the Suffrage Committee?