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History column: Utah women were on the front lines of suffrage battles

By Eileen Hallet Stone

Special to the Tribune

First Published Mar 01 2014 07:56 pm • Last Updated Mar 02 2014 11:16 pm

Forty-one National Women’s Party members picketed outside the front gates of the White House on Nov. 10, 1917, demanding Congress pass the national suffrage amendment enfranchising women.

Called the "Silent Sentinels for Liberty," these women of protest included R.B. Quay and C.T. Robertson of Utah. They wore gold, white and purple tri-colored sashes and brandished oversized banners and placards that read, "Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?"

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By nightfall, they were arrested — for obstructing traffic.

The NWP was the militant wing of the suffragist movement guided by firebrands Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. According to Library of Congress records, NWP sought equity by picketing, petitioning, marching and, if necessary, going to jail.

They had been protesting with impunity for several months when, in March 1917, more than 1,000 women suffragists marched around the White House during President Wilson’s second inauguration. Eventually, the pickets ran into trouble.

In June, Burns and fellow-suffragist Katherine Morey were arrested for displaying a banner printed with Wilson’s war message: "We shall fight for the things which we have always held nearest our hearts — for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments…"

Soon after, the first six of 168 picketers were jailed. Those still on the line were assaulted by mobs, including servicemen. Arrests became commonplace.

Paul, charged in October, was given a seven-month sentence. She insisted on political prisoner status to no avail. Abusively bullied, she began a hunger strike, was put into a "psychopathic" room and forcibly fed with tubes until she vomited.

The Nov. 10 incarceration of these suffragists from California to Maine sparked public attention — but prison officials remained mum and lawyers were denied access.

In a 1917 Salt Lake Tribune article, Quay wrote, "Every woman [was] prepared to die for the cause, if necessary."


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The article described 49-year-old Quay as "quite a scrapper [who] dared policemen and an Army officer to wrench a suffragist banner from her hand before the White House gates."

Unwilling to pay fines, seeing it as an admission of guilt, and refusing bail, some protesters were sent to the district jail. Most were transported to the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. There, on Nov. 15, they endured what has become known as the "Night of Terror."

The notorious workhouse superintendent, W.W. Whittaker, allowed his men to beat, punch and choke the women.

In "Jailed for Freedom," author and former suffragist prisoner Doris Stevens recorded how frail Dorothy Day was "lifted and violently banged into the arm of an iron bench." Mary Nolan, 73, was "jerked" off her feet. Alice Cosu, pushed by guards, "struck the wall."

In a Dec. 1917, Salt Lake Tribune article, Quay stated, "We were dragged across a dark courtyard by a mob of men and thrown into dungeons — punishment cells. Across the hall was Lucy Burns, whose hands were pulled through the bars and handcuffed high above her head. Another girl had been so mistreated I thought she would die. Many times in the night, I arose to see if she was living."

Robertson collapsed and was taken to the hospital. A Nov. 25, 1917, Salt Lake Tribune special edition reported her breakdown was "believed to be due to lack of nourishment."

The article noted Quay was "decidedly haggard and has lost considerable weight . . . due to her participation in the hunger strike."

Stevens wrote suffragists joining Paul’s hunger strike were placed in solitary confinement. Sickly, pale, and abused, they endured, believing in their constitutional right to protest.

Letters, smuggled out, incited public outcry. Finally, a court-ordered hearing exposed the horrific events. On Nov. 27-28, the suffragists were released.

"Would I go there again?" Quay asked. "Yes, many times. Yes, just as often as my services are needed."

The NWP persisted. On Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment became law.

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Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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