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Starving for Women’s Suffrage: “I Am Not Strong after These Weeks”

Members of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) took some of the most militant actions in the struggle for suffrage in the early 20th century. NWP members who had been imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse went on a hunger strike to draw international attention to their cause. Prison authorities responded with brutal force feedings. The excerpt included here, from the clandestine prison diary of NWP member Rose Winslow, described the rigors of that experience. Born in Poland, Rose Winslow (her given name was Ruza Wenclawska) started working in a Pennsylvania textile mill at age eleven, quitting eight years later when she developed tuberculosis.

If this thing is necessary we will naturally go through with it. Force is so stupid weapon. I feel so happy doing my bit for decency ? for our war, which is after all, real and fundamental.

The women are all so magnificent, so beautiful. Alice Paul is as thin as ever, pale and large-eyed. We have been in solitary for five weeks. There is nothing to tell but that the days go by somehow. I have felt quite feeble the last few days‹ faint, so that I could hardly get my hair brushed, my arms ached so. But to-day I’m well again. Alice Paul and I talk back and forth though we are at opposite ends of the building and a hall door also shuts us apart. But occasionally ? thrills ? we escape from behind our iron-barred doors and visit. Great laughter and rejoicing!

My fainting probably means nothing except that I am not strong after these weeks. I know YOU won’t be alarmed.

I told about a syphilitic colored woman with one leg. The other one was cut off, having rotted so that it was alive with maggots when she came in. The remaining one is now getting as bad, They are so short of nurses that a little colored girl of twelve, who is here waiting to have her tonsils removed, waits on her. This child and two others share a ward with a syphilitic child of three or four years, whose mother refused to have it at home. It makes you absolutely ill to see it....

Alice Paul is in the psychopathetic ward. She dreaded forcible feeding frightfully, and I hate to think how she must be feeling, I had a nervous time of it, gasping a long time afterward, and my stomach rejecting during the process. I spent a bad, restless night, but otherwise I am all right. The poor soul who fed me got liberally besprinkled during the process. I heard myself making the most hideous sounds.... One feels so forsaken when one lies prone and people shove a pipe down one’s stomach.

This morning but for an astounding tiredness, I am all right. I am waiting to see what happens when the President realizes that brutal bullying isn’t quite a statesmanlike method for settling a demand for justice at home. At least, if men are supine enough to endure, women ? to their eternal glory ? are not....

... Don’t let them tell you we take this well. Miss Paul vomits much. I do, too . . . . We think of the coming feeding all day. It is horrible. The doctor thinks I take it well. I hate the thought of Alice Paul and the others if I take it well....

All the officers here know we are making this hunger strike that women fighting for liberty may be considered political prisoners; we have told them. God knows we don’t want other women ever to have to do this over again.

Source: Doris Stevens,Jailed for Freedom (Salem, NH: Ayer Co., 1920; reprint 1990): 246–7

See Also:Suffrage On Stage: Marie Jenney Howe Parodies the Opposition
Suffrage in Print: Alice Duer Miller's Satiric Journalism
Singing for Suffrage: A Yiddish Musical Dialogue
Auto Tours for Women's Suffrage: An Oral Memoir
Jailed for Freedom: A Women's Suffragist Remembers Prison