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Jailed for Freedom: A Women’s Suffragist Remembers Prison

In the early 20th century suffragists employed many different tactics in their struggle to win the vote for women. Members of the militant National Woman’s Party (NWP), for example, rejected the patient waiting espoused by much of the movement. Some NWP members even chained themselves to the White House gates—an action that led to sentences in the Occoquan Workhouse. In this 1973 interview with historian Sherna Gluck, Ernestine Hara Kettler, a young woman of radical immigrant background, recalled her stint in the workhouse.

Listen to Audio:

Ernestine Hara Kettler: After we were sentenced, we were taken directly to the city jail, and that’s where we cooked up our political-prisoner demand. We were political prisoners. We were not guilty of obstructing traffic. We were not guilty of the sentence as charged. And, therefore, we did not owe any kind of work in the workhouse, because that workhouse was a real workhouse. You worked or else. So we didn’t work, so we were or-elsed. And that’s the beginning of the real fight at the workhouse. And the jail, when we were there overnight and taken during that evening, we made all this decision. We were not going to work. We were going to ask all the other women already, the suffrage women already in jail, to accept our decision, and whatever happened, happened, you know.

Sherna Gluck: There were already a group in when you went in then.

Kettler: There was already. . .there was a group of either nine or twelve women. I do not remember. It was in between. Either we made twelve women or we made sixteen women. It seemed like a rather large crowd to me, so I think that we made the sixteen women when we got there.

Now I’m giving you the real story of the prison experience. When we got there, we had an immediate discussion with the other women and told them our decision. And they were very enthusiastic about it. They accepted it without question.

So the next day, we appeared in the workroom and we just sat there with our hands in our laps. I don’t know when the superintendent began to talk to us, but it wasn’t long before he asked, would we at least please hold the work in our lap, that we were demoralizing the other prisoners in that workroom. What we were making, I suppose, were sack dresses for the prisoners, because that’s all we wore, were just sack dresses. And then we said no, that since we decided that we were unjustly arrested, that we were political prisoners, that it would be just as wrong for us to hold the work in our hands as it was for us to sew it, that we were going to abide by our decision and that we had to be respected as political prisoners.

Well, this went on for 26 days.

Source: Oral history courtesy of Sherna Gluck, Feminist History Project.

See Also:Auto Tours for Women's Suffrage: An Oral Memoir
Starving for Women's Suffrage: "I Am Not Strong after These Weeks"