Iron Jawed Angels and Silent Sentinels: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

A woman suffrage activist protesting after 'The Night of Terror.' [1917]

A woman suffrage activist protesting after the infamous ‘The Night of Terror.’

It might seem from this blog that the only Suffragettes were the English Suffragettes. Women’s suffrage had movements in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and – of course – America (and other places as well). American women fought long and hard for their rights. From the 1860s onward, American suffragettes fought hard to gain their right to vote, with some of the most brutal and evil forces acting against them.

One of the most shocking episodes is referred to as ‘The Night of Terror’.The Silent Sentinels were organized by Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party to peacefully protest in front of the White House during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. Thousands of different women picketed day and night except for  Sundays, and many were arrested during this vigil. The Night of Terror happened November 14, 1917, when thirty-three of the protesters were attacked by forty-four club-wielding men. These men beat, kicked, dragged and choked their charges, and then dragged them off to jail to brutalize them some more. Lucy Burns- already badly beaten – was handcuffed to the bars of her cell with her arms above her head. Later on, affidavits describe the guards grabbing, dragging, beating, choking, slamming, pinching, twisting and kicking the women.

This was just the start of these women’s suffering. They were allowed no visitors, so that word of their treatment couldn’t get out to the public. They were fed rancid food, stale water, and were subjected to forced feeding if they tried to start a hunger strike. Woodrow Wilson and his supporters in Congress tried to have the ringleaders institutionalized for insanity.

Finally, the media got a hold of the story of how the protesters were being mistreated. The stories enraged America, and the political tide began to turn in favour of the protesters and against the Wilson government. This created more support for the suffrage amendment. Finally, on November 27 and 28, all the protesters were released, after spending weeks in prison.

Later, in March 1918, the D. C. Court of Appeals declared all the suffrage arrests, trials, and punishments had been unconstitutional. This escalated the bad feeling towards the government. As tensions grew, President Wilson realized something had to be done quickly to end the situation. He requested that Congress convene for a special session in May 1919, and they finally passed an amendment giving women the vote. It took a few more years for the states to ratify the amendment, but the battle was won in the end. American suffragettes were just as important to women’s rights as the British suffragettes (and the rest of the world).

Komako Kimura, a prominent Japanese suffragist at a march in New York. [October 23, 1917]

Komako Kimura, a prominent Japanese suffragist at a march in New York. [October 23, 1917]

An African American chapter of the Suffrage Women's League

An African American chapter of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association

Women’s suffrage was an international issue. Women were never going to be given any rights, in the same way no one wanted to give rights to slaves. So, when I write about suffragettes, they are not meek women. They were tough and brave, they knew the risks they were taking, and took them anyway. So I characterize my suffragettes as courageous, dedicated and intelligent women – just like they would have been in real life – no matter what country they may hail from.


Filed under Historical Personage, History, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Suffragettes

11 responses to “Iron Jawed Angels and Silent Sentinels: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

  1. I did not know any of this.(High school history was pretty bloody useless on a lot of counts)

    BUT, I just have to butt in here to mention that New Zealand was the first to bring in universal voting. (A better expression than ‘give women the vote’, perhaps? – Which still rings of the patriarchy in my mind.) i don’t recall every learning about such savagery occurring there. (Must do more reseach.)

  2. The Wikipedia entry is extremely interesting, particularly the details about how the final vote occurred in the upper house.
    Shades of Woodrow Wilson, to be sure!

    But no mention of any actual violence.

  3. One final comment:
    How instructive that the Nation so loud in proclaiming its credentials as the champion of Truth, Liberty, Free Speech and Democracy, and braggart about its marvelous Constitution, was so violent an oppressor of free speech, so opposed to democracy, and so unconstitutional in its actions.

  4. Thanks for this post – I hadn’t even thought about how limited my knowledge of suffragetts outside Britain was until i read it. It still appalls and baffles me that the people opposing them thought they were in the right, but i know mine is a very modern liberal perspective.

    • People are scared of a change to the status quo. And – sadly – I believe some men thought they could only be powerful by having everyone else remain powerless. Of course, we know the opposite is true, and that the more you empower others, the more you empower yourself.

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