Prison Writings of a Radical Suffragist Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Rose Winslow was a member of the National Women’s Party (NWP), an organization founded by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns in 1913 to advocate for voting rights for women. The NWP broke away from the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which some women viewed as too conservative. The NWP decided to focus its energy on appealing directly to the president, Woodrow Wilson, who had not committed his support to suffrage in 1917. Winslow and others participated in picketing in front of the White House, agitation that was initially ignored; when the nation began mobilizing for war in Europe, however, the picketers were arrested and imprisoned. When they refused to eat in protest, picketers were force-fed, a process that caused significant pain and distress to them. In scraps of paper smuggled out of the prison, Winslow described conditions in the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, focusing particularly on the torturous process of force-feeding.

Summary Overview

Rose Winslow was a member of the National Women’s Party (NWP), an organization founded by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns in 1913 to advocate for voting rights for women. The NWP broke away from the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which some women viewed as too conservative. The NWP decided to focus its energy on appealing directly to the president, Woodrow Wilson, who had not committed his support to suffrage in 1917. Winslow and others participated in picketing in front of the White House, agitation that was initially ignored; when the nation began mobilizing for war in Europe, however, the picketers were arrested and imprisoned. When they refused to eat in protest, picketers were force-fed, a process that caused significant pain and distress to them. In scraps of paper smuggled out of the prison, Winslow described conditions in the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, focusing particularly on the torturous process of force-feeding.

Defining Moment

The NWP began its life as a radical organization, founded by a group of women who believed that direct, public agitation would be an effective strategy to win women the right to vote. Alice Paul, the leader of the NWP, was an intelligent, savvy, and combative strategist who understood public relations. She organized a large suffrage parade on March 3, 1913, the day before Wilson’s first inauguration, and over five thousand people took part. In January 1917, Paul organized the Silent Sentinels, a group of women who picketed in front of the White House around the clock, every day but Sunday. She understood that the publicity gained from picketing would force the president to action. At first, Wilson and the police ignored the picketers, considering them curiosities rather than serious agitators. As the United States readied for war against Germany, however, the mood changed. Picket signs became increasingly incendiary (one compared Wilson to the hated kaiser of Germany), and the women were increasingly attacked and harassed. Beginning on June 25, picketers began to be arrested, ostensibly for obstructing traffic. At first, most were offered jail or a fine. If they chose jail, they were released after a few days, or pardoned. Wilson, a progressive reformer, did not wish to be seen as a brute by his European allies, but also did not want to appear weak. As the picketing continued, the sentences for these women grew. Winslow was arrested on October 15 and Paul was arrested on October 20. The women were sentenced to seven months and six months in jail, respectively, and were sent to the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia.

Once in jail, Winslow and her fellow picketers were threatened, assaulted, and abused. Paul was sentenced to solitary confinement, with only bread and water to eat for two weeks. When she became so weak she could no longer stand, she was sent to the prison hospital, where she refused to eat. Winslow and several others went on hunger strike as well, a practical and symbolic tactic that forced the authorities to either release them or torture them by force-feeding. It was also intended to identify the picketers as political rather than criminal prisoners. On other occasions, women were beaten, choked, knocked unconscious, and chained to their cells. Women were threatened with commitment to insane asylums. Newspapers carried sensational stories of the treatment of women like Winslow, who fainted from hunger on several occasions, and supporters smuggled out information describing brutal force-feedings and terrible treatment. Though there was certainly strong anti-suffrage sentiment in the United States, the treatment of the picketers, many of whom were middle- and upper-class women, began to galvanize support for suffrage. All of the picketers were released on November 27 and 28, and their convictions later erased. Wilson himself came out in favor of votes for women in early 1918, and the Nineteenth Amendment, outlawing voting discrimination on the basis of gender, was finally ratified in August 1920.

Author Biography

Rose Winslow was born Ruza Wenclawska in Poland and immigrated to the United States with her family as an infant. Winslow’s father worked as a coal miner and steel worker in Pennsylvania. Winslow began working at a hosiery mill in Pittsburgh at age eleven and also worked in factories in Philadelphia. She contracted tuberculosis when she was nineteen and was unable to work for two years. Despite her fragile health, Winslow became a factory inspector and labor organizer in New York City, working with both the National Consumers’ League and the National Women’s Trade Union League.

Winslow became an excellent public speaker during her years of union activism, and she brought this skill with her when she joined the NWP in 1916. Winslow traveled across the country speaking to suffrage rallies, often with NWP founder Paul, with whom she sometimes clashed. Winslow advocated for the inclusion of working-class women and men in the NWP, while Paul did not wish to organize men and did not encourage a prolabor message in her platform.

Winslow was a lead picketer of the White House in 1917, and she was arrested on October 15, 1917, and sent to the DC jail and the Occoquan Workhouse. Like Paul, she was placed in solitary confinement. She joined Paul on a hunger strike in October and was freed in November. Her actions helped convince Wilson to support a suffrage amendment. Little is known of Winslow’s later life. She died in 1977.

Document Analysis

The passages in this selection were taken from scraps of Winslow’s diary that were smuggled out of the Occoquan Workhouse in 1917 and were, therefore, intended to be shared not only with the supporters of the prisoners, but also with the public, whose interest in the plight of the women was piqued. Doris Stevens published excerpts of these smuggled diary scraps in Jailed for Freedom (1920), a history of militant suffragists in the United States between 1913 and 1919.

In her account, Winslow describes the harrowing experience of hunger-striking and being force-fed, but also demonstrates her admiration for the other picketers in prison and her pride in her role in the movement. She is “happy doing my bit for decency” and views their fight for the vote as “war, which is after all, real and fundamental.” Despite being in solitary confinement, Winslow is sometimes able to see Paul, who is “thin as ever, pale and large-eyed.” Although they are held at opposite ends of the prison, they are able to hear each other, and when they are able to visit, there is “great laughter and rejoicing.” Winslow is impressed with the other prisoners as well. “The women are all so magnificent, so beautiful,” and she is determined to make her stance as a political prisoner clear, and win her fight so that “other women [don’t] ever have to do this over again.”

Winslow describes her physical state in detail in these passages, as well as the brutal process of force-feeding. In the context of her time, when women were considered fragile and delicate, these descriptions were a powerful way to gain sympathy for the plight of these women. Winslow emphasized her physical weakness, but also her resilience. “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 am well again.”

Winslow describes force-feeding as “brutal bullying” and predicts, correctly, that President Wilson will realize that “isn’t quite a statesmanlike method for settling a demand for justice at home.” Winslow worries about Paul, who is locked up in a “psychopathetic ward” and “dreaded forcible feeding frightfully.” Winslow herself describes spending the day anticipating the torturous practice and the choking and vomiting that she knows will follow. “One feels so forsaken when one lies prone and people shove a pipe down one’s stomach.” Winslow is aware that the prison and the government are downplaying their suffering in a way that could hurt the prisoners’ cause. “Don’t let them tell you we take this well.” Her words show that she wants the strikers to be perceived as political prisoners who are willing to endure pain and bodily harm as part of their struggle for suffrage.

Essential Themes

Winslow was determined to accurately portray both the frailty and the determination of the picketers held in the Occoquan Workhouse and to describe the hunger strike as a political, not criminal, action. American feelings about the delicacy of womanhood were offended by the idea of holding down women–primarily middle- and upper-class white women–and shoving hoses down their throats while they choked and vomited. The willingness of these women to risk their health was shown to be evidence of their determination to win their fight and impressed many political leaders, including Wilson, who was forced to face mounting opposition to their imprisonment and ill-treatment. As difficult and painful as these experiences were for suffragettes, information leaked to the outside world was crucial in turning the tide of public opinion in their favor.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Buchanan, Paul D. The American Women’s Rights Movement: A Chronology of Events and Opportunities from 1600 to 2008. Boston: Branden, 2009. Digital file.
  • Dubois, E. C. Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848–1869. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978. Print.
  • Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge: Belknap, 1996. Print.
  • Library of Congress. “Profiles: Selected Leaders of the National Woman’s Party.” Library of Congress. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 11 May 2014.
  • Stevens, Doris. Jailed for Freedom. 1920: n.p. Project Gutenberg, 2003. Web. 31 Jul. 2014.
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