Indigo Insights

Friday, August 06, 2004
This piece will be posted at the beginning of each month until the November election.

My grandmother, "Mammy" to all who loved her, was one of the first women voters in the United States. She was married in 1898 and immediately became the property of her husband. Voting was the first right given to her as an American citizen. Within the seclusion and secrecy of the voting booth, she could make a decision without consulting her husband. She wasn't chattel in that booth, but a thinking being, choosing for herself. It's hard to believe that less than a hundred years ago in this country, American women were perceived and treated much as Arab women are today. When I was a child, young adult, and mother of my own children, I didn't understand why voting was such a big issue with Mammy. She never learned to drive, so every election day someone had to drive her to the polls to exercise her hard-earned right - basically her only freedom of choice. She lived to be 82 years old, but aches or pains, rain or shine, she made it to the polls every year to cast her vote, even if only a dog catcher was running. Voting was her only freedom and she exercised it to the utmost. I didn't get it then. I do now, after reading the story that Mammy lived.

Remembering How Women Got the Vote

The women were innocent and defenseless. And by the end of the night, they were barely alive. Forty prison guards wielding clubs and their warden's blessing went on a rampage against the 33 helpless women wrongly convicted of "obstructing sidewalk traffic."

They beat Lucy Burn, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head and left her hanging for the night, bleeding and gasping for air. They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, thought Lewis was dead and suffered a heart attack. Additional affidavits describe the guards grabbing, dragging, beating, choking, slamming, pinching, twisting and kicking the women.

Thus unfolded the "Night of Terror" on Nov. 15, 1917, when the warden at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia ordered his guards to teach a lesson to the suffragists imprisoned there because they dared to picket Woodrow Wilson's White House for the right to vote.

For weeks, the women's only water came from an open pail. Their food--all of it colorless slop--was infested with worms. When one of the leaders, Alice Paul, embarked on a hunger strike, they tied her to a chair, forced a tube down her throat and poured liquid into her until she vomited. She was tortured like this for weeks until word was smuggled out to the press.

So, refresh my memory. Some women won't vote this year because--why, exactly? We have carpool duties? We have to get to work? Our vote doesn't matter? It's raining?

Last week, I went to a sparsely attended screening of HBO's new movie "Iron Jawed Angels." It is a graphic depiction of the battle these women waged so that I could pull the curtain at the polling booth and have my say. I am ashamed to say I needed the reminder.

There was a time when I knew these women well. I met them in college--not in my required American history courses, which barely mentioned them, but in women's history class. That's where I found the irrepressibly brave Alice Paul. Her large, brooding eyes seemed fixed on my own as she stared out from the page. Remember, she silently beckoned. Remember.

I thought I always would. I registered voters throughout college and law school, worked on congressional and presidential campaigns until I started writing for newspapers. When Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president, I took my 9-year-old son to meet her. "My knees are shaking," he whispered after shaking her hand. "I'm never going to wash this hand again."

All these years later, voter registration is still my passion. But the actual act of voting had become less personal for me, more rote. Frankly, voting often felt more like an obligation than a privilege. Sometimes, it was even inconvenient.

My friend Wendy, who is my age and studied women's history, saw the HBO movie, too. When she stopped by my desk to talk about it, she looked angry. She was. With herself . "One thought kept coming back to me as I watched that movie,"she said. "What would those women think of the way I use--or don't use--my right to vote? All of us take it for granted now, not just younger women, but those of us who did seek to learn." The right to vote, she said, had become valuable to her "all over again."

HBO will run the movie periodically before releasing it on video and DVD. I wish all history, social studies and government teachers would include the movie in their curriculum. I want it shown on Bunko night, too, and anywhere else women gather. I realize this isn't our usual idea of socializing, but we are not voting in the numbers that we should be, and I think a little shock therapy is in order. It is jarring to watch Woodrow Wilson and his cronies try to persuade a psychiatrist to declare Alice Paul insane so that she could be permanently institutionalized. And it is inspiring to watch the doctor refuse. Alice Paul was strong, he said, and brave. That didn't make her crazy. The doctor admonished the men: "Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity."

[profuse thanks to Christina, Swansboro, NC]


>^..^< Due to the cyber chaos here over the last few weeks, I missed wishing Happy Birthday to a unique blogging buddy. I had saved a neat little ditty for her special day, too. So, belatedly, here it is for my Half-Century-Old-Blogging-Girl-Friend: You're not 50. You're $49.95, plus tax! "Birthdays are good for you; the more you have, the longer you live."

>^..^< I have triplets, but not identical. One is liberal and two are conservative. Visit my three blogsons for incisive political comment here and here and here. See if you can figure out which is which! Bwahahahaha!

>^..^< "A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention in human history - with the possible exceptions of handguns and tequila." - Mitch Ratliffe a Hyundai.