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Prisoners of Freedom

October 13, 1917 — Dinner to honor five women released from Occoquan Workhouse, National Headquarters, National Women’s Party, Washington DC


Five of us who are with you tonight have recently come out from the workhouse into the world. A great change? Not so much of a change for women, disfranchised women. In prison or out, American women are not free. Loss of physical freedom simply gives us and the public a new and vivid sense of what our lack of political freedom really means.

Disfranchisement is the prison of woman’s power and spirit. Women have long been classed with criminals so far as their voting rights are concerned. And how quick the Government is to live up to its classification the minute women determinedly insist upon these rights. Prison life epitomizes all life under undemocratic rule. At Occoquan, as at the Capitol and the Whit House, we faced hypocrisy, trickery and treachery on the part of those in power. And the constant appeal to us to “co-operate with the workhouse authorities,” sounded wonderfully like the exhortation addressed to all women to “support the Government.”

“Is that the law of the District of Columbia?” I asked Superintendent Whittaker concerning a statement he had made to me. “It is the law,” he answered, “Because it is the rule I make.” The answer of Whittaker is the answer Wilson makes to women every time the Government, of which he is the head, enacts a law and at the same time continues to refuse to pass the Susan B. Anthony amendment.

It has been well said by Anne Martin, “Every reform is a battle of ideas.” The Woman’s Party policy is winning because it puts ideas into action. Perhaps every reform movement tends at some time to become a battle of words. The suffrage movement has been in danger of becoming a battle of arguments and appeals on the one side, and on the other side, of sounding phrases and soothing speeches, such as, “I have come to fight with you,” which died away after election into, “May I not hope?”

We seem today to stand before you free, but I have no sense of freedom, because I have left comrades at Occoquan and because other comrades may at any moment join them there. Not our comrades only, but our leaders. What one of us can think of Alice Paul, of Lucy Burns, as prisoners of the National Government, and not feel on her own body, and on her own spirit, the coarse prison clothing, the galling weight of prison rules?

While she and our other comrades are there, what is our freedom? It is as empty as the so-called political freedom of women who have won suffrage by a state referendum. Like them we are free only within limits.

Are we free to petition for our rights? To picket peacefully? To demand the power to protect other women? If we try to do these things we shall find ourselves again at Occoquan. We are free only to submit.

The Government wishes to give us an indeterminate sentence in the workhouse of continual, uncomplaining work for suffrage. But this is soon to fall, like a modern bastile, before the onslaught of enlightened public opinion which is coming to our rescue.

But we must not simply wait for it. We must keep calling to cheer it on. Publicity plays the same part in prison as outside. While we were suppressed we could be oppressed. When we could let the public know the facts, the pressure let up. We must do these two things: let the people know and make them understand. When they understand, they are our allies.

We must not let our voice be drowned by war trumpets or cannon. If we should, we should find ourselves, when the war is over, with a peace that would only prolong our struggle, a democracy that would belie its name by leaving out half the people.



Source: The Suffragist, Vol. V, No. 91, October 20, 1917.