Friday Labor Folklore: March 18

The Force Feeding of Alice Paul

It was shocking indeed that a government of men could look with such contempt on a movement that was asking nothing except such a little thing as the right to vote.

Alice Paul

Alice Paul, the American feminist and suffragist, led a successful campaign for women’s suffrage that resulted in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920.  A founder of the National Woman’s Party (1916) she helped to organize picketing outside the White House demanding that President Wilson take action to secure voting rights for women.

In 1917 the picketers began to be arrested on the trumped-up charge of “obstructing traffic.”  When they refused to pay the fine the arrested suffragists were taken to Occoquan Workhouse, a rat-infested prison in Virginia.  There Alice Paul and her compatriot, Rose Winslow, began to stage a hunger strike.

“Paul chose hunger striking to show that she was willing to give her life for suffrage. Her own sacrifice would thus constitute a powerful form of nonviolent persuasion and pressure because no warden wanted to be responsible for the severe illness or death of this well-known leader.”

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“As Paul’s hunger strike continued, she was threatened with force feeding.  In response, her supporters telegrammed commissioners and the warden and secured physicians to make statements for the press about the dangers of a hard tube being forced down the throat to shove food into the stomach.  Although protests appeared in newspapers, the threats of force-feeding turned into reality.”

“Yesterday was a bad day for me,” reported Rose Winslow in a letter smuggled out of jail by friends. “I was vomiting continuously during the process.  The tube had developed an irritation somewhere that was painful.  Don’t let them tell you we take this well.  Miss Paul vomits much, I do too.  It’s the nervous reaction, and I can’t control it much.  We think of the coming feeding all day. It is horrible.”

Fourteen other imprisoned women – at Occoquan Workhouse and at the District Jail – began their own hunger strikes. “Dr. Gannon then forced the tube through my lips and down my throat, I gasping and suffocating with the agony of it,” one woman wrote.  “I didn’t know where to breathe from and everything turned black when the liquid began pouring in.”

Alice Paul was subjected to force feedings three times a day. Despite her poor health and deteriorating condition she refused to stop her hunger strike.  After three weeks prison authorities transferred her to the psychiatric ward.Edited from Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaignby Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene, Univ. of Ill. Press, 2008.

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