There is physical courage, like a firefighter rescuing a person from a burning building or a soldier jumping on a grenade to save comrades. We applaud these selfless actions and sometimes express our gratitude and admiration with awards.
There are others who act based on their convictions, who are sometimes recognized for their audacity to buck the status quo. Rosa Parks sat on a bus; a seemingly small action that helped propel the civil rights movement.
Sr Megan Rice, an 85-year-old Catholic nun, served two years in prison for trespassing and damaging government equipment in Oak Ridge, TN. Her aim: to draw attention to the dangers of nuclear weapons.
After serving as a nun for 47 years, Sister Trish Rawles was ordained as a Roman Catholic WomenPriest. For her action, she was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. Roman Catholics who attend ordinations of women priests are also subject to excommunication.
On a weekend visit to the Lorton, VA Workhouse, we saw the prison where women demanding the right to vote were “jailed for freedom.” From 1917 – 1919, over 200 Suffragists were arrested on charges of “obstructing free passage of sidewalk” or “holding a meeting on public grounds.” Thousands of women participated in perpetual demonstrations in front of the White House, standing silently with banners.
As the Suffragists saw it, the U.S. was battling for democracy abroad during World War I while denying democracy to women at home. “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” The suffragists were called unpatriotic for challenging the President and Congress during wartime. In response to their actions, some of the Silent Sentinels were given the choice of incarceration or paying a $25 fine. They chose jail.
“Not a dollar of your fine shall we pay. To pay a fine would be an admission of guilt. We are innocent.”
Some were sentenced to the Women’s Workhouse at Lorton and held under deplorable conditions. The women staged hunger strikes, were force-fed and treated brutally. Sonia Pressman Fuentes documents the Workhouse’s “Night of Terror,” November 15, 1917:
Under orders from W. H. Whittaker, superintendent of the Occoquan Workhouse, as many as forty guards with clubs went on a rampage, brutalizing thirty-three jailed suffragists. They beat Lucy Burns, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head, and left her there for the night. They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed, and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate Alice Cosu, who believed Mrs. Lewis to be dead, suffered a heart attack. According to affidavits, other women were grabbed, dragged, beaten, choked, slammed, pinched, twisted, and kicked. (source: Barbara Leaming, Katherine Hepburn (New York: Crown Publishers, 1995), 182.)
News of the prisoners’ treatment aroused sympathy for the suffragists and their cause. President Wilson reacted to public outrage and endorsed the amendment. In 1919, the 19th amendment to the Constitution granting Women’s Right to Vote was ratified. Women were allowed to vote in the November 1920 national election for the first time.
I know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion. Emmeline Pankhurst
What do you stand for? What would you risk to bring about changes for something you believe in? To what extent are you willing to take a stand, even if it means personal discomfort? I admire the women whose actions aligned with their principles and chose to be imprisoned over being quiet.
© Joan S Grey, 1 Dec 2015
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