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


Kate Heffelfinger is released from Occoquan, via Library of Congress

When the Nineteenth Amendment was again defeated in the Senate in February 1919, it felt like a slap in the face to the suffrage movement. So the suffragists decided to take a trip. The story of the Prison Special train tour isn't as much a tale of triumph as a reminder of how bad it can get right before victory.

By the end of World War I, the suffrage movement was battered and bruised. There were divisive splits between militant Nineteenth Amendment supporters and those who felt women could "earn" suffrage through milder means. Suffragists were bitterly excoriated in the media and blacked out by a coalition of press and politicians tired of the suffragists' antics. They were beaten and mocked by crowds unsympathetic to the cause. Worse still, they were imprisoned in large numbers, for reasons imaginary and unimaginable.

Lucy Branham gives a speech dressed as a Occoquan Workhouse prisoner, via Library of Congress

February 1919 was a particularly dark moment for the cause. Though President Wilson had finally given his support to a suffrage amendment, he was dragging his feet on the lobbying needed to garner the votes. Still, victory seemed close—after all, most states supported suffrage and the House had finally passed the Nineteenth Amendment. But when the amendment was narrowly defeated in the Senate, the suffragists decided to take a trip.

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.

Louisine Havemeyer and Vida Mulholland on the Prison Express tour via Library of Congress

Louisine Havemeyer was one such speaker, insisting on riding the trains to her children's dismay. After being incarcerated for a peaceful protest in which she helped burn an effigy of Wilson near the White House, sixty-something Havemeyer was carted off to jail. She was appalled by the prison: a basement-level cell, a dirty straw bed, freezing and unsanitary conditions. "The women of America were to languish in a dirty, discarded prison, because they dared to ask for their democracy," she later wrote. Havemeyer, a respected art collector and philanthropist, usually spoke first at the Prison Special stops; renowned "suffrage beauty" Vida Mulholland sang.

Helena Hill Weed and Vida Mullholand in Occoquan. Weed's crime? Carrying a banner that said "Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed." via Library of Congress / Library of Congress

But the tour met with controversy and difficulties wherever it traveled. Authorities refused to let the women install a prison door on the exterior of the train. Audiences were either small and indifferent or large and angry. In New York, six women were arrested for disorderly conduct as they attempted to walk toward the Metropolitan Opera House, where Wilson was giving a speech. Upon their release a few hours later, they were jeered by sailors and soldiers in the street. When Elsie Hill confronted them, telling them that women had made the bandages and Red Cross supplies that helped them in the war, the sailors themselves asked the police to arrest the women again. On their way back to NWP headquarters, Doris Stevens was knocked unconscious by a member of the crowd. No police intervened, and the next day papers reported that over 200 "maddened women" had attempted to attack the President.

Finally, alarmed by the resolve of these maddened women, Wilson's cabinet sent a worried telegram to the President, who had returned to Europe to further postwar peace arrangements. He summoned Senator Harris, the holdout who had prevented passage of the amendment, and on June 4, 1919, the Nineteenth Amendment passed with 56 ayes and 25 nays. Not a single suffragist was invited to witness the amendment's final passage in 1920.

Additional Sources: After the Vote Was Won: The Later Achievements of Fifteen Suffragists; Long Island and the Woman Suffrage Movement; Alice Paul: Claiming Power; Hidden History of Northern Virginia; The Wayward Woman: Progressivism, Prostitution, and Performance in the United States, 1888–1917; Woodrow Wilson - A Portrait (PBS American Experience); Jailed For Freedom; "White House Pickets to Meet Wilson Here," New York Times [PDF]; "Call Prison Special Democracy Unlimited," New York Times PDF].