The Prison Special: One Last Push for Women's Suffrage

In 1919, things weren’t looking good for women’s suffrage. Although the House haas passed the Nineteenth Amendment, the Senate had voted it down. Politicians were tired of the suffragists, and President Wilson wasn’t helping matters. Also, activists were being arrested left and right and were abused in prison. What to do? Organize a train ride!

They called it "Democracy Limited," but the public immediately dubbed the three-week suffrage tour of February 1919 "The Prison Special." Its purpose? Make one last push for suffrage by harnessing the power of personal narrative. Its focus? The inhumane prison sentences served by so many women who fought for the vote.

The concept was relatively simple: the tour's slogan was "From Prison to People" and the train traveled the nation, packed with 26 members of the National Women's Party. When they arrived at their destination, they would don uniforms like the ones they were forced to wear at the Occoquan Workhouse, the prison that would eventually house over 150 suffragists. Alice Paul was force-fed egg yolks and placed in solitary confinement in a psychiatric ward. There, women were beaten, dragged, kicked, and even knocked unconscious by guards unsympathetic to the crowds. Now the same women brought their tales of incarceration and unsanitary, shocking conditions to the public, concluding with passionate pleas for President Wilson to act at last.

Not everyone greeted the tour with open arms, but it ended up helping to push the Amendment through the Senate. Read the story of the Hail Mary move that served as the end of the campaign for the right for women to vote, at mental_floss.

(Image credit: The Library of Congress)


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