Recovering Ruza

A Fictionalized Account of a Suffragette’s Experience at the Occoquan Workhouse

Ruza Wenclawska (Rose Winslow) circa. 1916

Originally submitted for academic purposes. Warning: Graphic Depiction of Forced-feeding

There is much time to think within these walls. Too much time. I try to keep my mind active, but it grows harder by the day. There are moments of weakness, I concede it.  Moments when I long for a warm bath and quilted bed, for a meal taken by my own volition.  In these moments, a dark recess of my heart wonders if this battle is worth fighting. When those deceptive thoughts creep in I force my mind back to the moments which strengthen my resolve. I remember the hardening days of my youth, working seemingly endless hours as a ‘looper’ in that Pittsburgh hosiery mill. I can still hear the whirring of my machine as it bound the heels and toes together, over and over again.[1] From six in the morning until six in the evening this was my life.[2] There were moments of horror in the mill that continue to haunt me. Girls younger than myself whose hair would get caught in the machine. Women whose fingers would be maimed when they were not being careful.  Those injuries, traumatic as they were for the woman involved, hardly compared to the worse that could happen. Our owners kept most of the doors locked so that only two exits were viable. This was to be sure that no one could slip out a back door with precious material on their person. We never practiced emergency evacuations, which made it all too easy for the lot of us to push such a possibility to the back of our minds. We lived in constant danger of calamity, but one manages to ignore such things. That is, until the worst does happen. I was a grown woman by the year 1911, but the Triangle Fire would plague my nightmares nonetheless.

            Perhaps no single event had as great an impact on my joining the National Women’s Party as this. I recall it all so vividly, although it was several years ago. It was a tragedy which reverberated throughout the entire city so much so that for days afterwards there was a tangible fog of grief shrouding every corner of New York. I can remember how my hands trembled as I read the next morning’s paper: “141 Men and Girls Die in Waist Factory Fire,” “Trapped High Up in Washington Place Building,” “Street Strewn With Bodies,” and, “Piles of Dead Inside.”[3] My stomach still churns at the thought of frantic women, many no older than myself, pounding on locked doors as flames closed in, throwing themselves from windows as though the hand of God would reach out from the Heavens to catch them.[4]  The conglomerate of emotions which affected me in that moment was enough to overwhelm anyone. The deepest sense of grief because of the sheer magnitude of the lives lost. The most profound waves of anger at the senselessness of it all. The devastating recognition that it could have very well been me trapped by those flames in some other factory during my youth. And finally, and most painfully, the guilt of knowing that I, in even the most miniscule way, failed to prevent this from transpiring.  I knew of the troubles of the Triangle Factory, although the full extent of them would only be made known to me during the investigation which followed. How could I not as a member of the National Women’s Trade Union League?[5] Our organization worked closely with the garment strike in 1909, which included the Triangle Factory. The demands were so simple that it confounds me that they had to be requested at all: a pay raise of twenty percent, limiting the workweek to fifty-two hours, and ability of workers to unionize.[6] In hindsight, we ought to have made demands regarding workplace safety, but alas it was a fatal oversight. Thoughts of this strike still bring a smile to my lips. It was a glorious, albeit terrifying and tumultuous, time of my life. To have twenty thousand workers (the bulk of them women) turn out to picket was a brilliant display of unity.[7]  But oh how forcefully were we opposed! Greed makes men so brutal. I remember one young girl, Rose Perr, had an especially difficult time of it. She sticks out in my mind as she was the tiniest creature I’d ever seen. Sixteen years old but I would have bet my life she was no older than twelve![8]  They arrested her and sentenced her to hard labor, there was much celebration amongst us when she was released. Our movement had grown by then, I must concede, in large part because of our wealthy benefactors. Dozens of upper crust women, many fresh out of college, rallied around the strike. Many of my colleagues would urge me to be more conciliar, but I cannot conceal that I had little respect for these women.  We were a pet project to them, nothing more. They swept into the strike, twisted it to suit their agenda, and went on with their fabulous lives when it was all done.[9]

            To this day I cannot but wonder how things may have been different if they had truly embraced our cause. If, instead of using us as a platform for their own desires for suffrage, they had actually supported the immediate demands of working women, maybe the strike would have met a different end. The sheer ignorance of these privileged women has continued to be a source of distress for me. I love Alice dearly, but sometimes I wish I could knock some sense into that thick skull of hers. She insists that we focus on the rights of women, but excludes so many from this definition. When she says ‘all women,’ what she ought to be forthright in admitting is that she actually means, “white, well-off women.”  We have bickered bitterly about this.[10]  All told, these disagreements usually fizzle out. There is enough division among women in this nation without the NWP’s infighting.  The women who fight against suffrage for any and all of their sisters give us a bigger fish to fry. I do not think there will ever be a moment that I am not wholly behooved by their position. Who, in their right mind, would fight tooth and nail to deny themselves of rights? These women, far more than any man, in my opinion, are the greatest threat to our movement. Much of their ‘rationale’ against woman’s suffrage is simply laughable, that is, it would be if the press did not treat it as worthy news.  The things they publish still start a fire in my gut.  We used to read them aloud at our headquarters, nominally for the purpose of amusement, but more seriously, to fan the flame of our passions. I can remember one particularly scathing piece in the Post in which one Mrs. Dodge, President of the abominable Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, condemned our sisters in New York for their marching attire.[11]  We made great sport out of her interview with the other girls chiming in as I read it aloud.

            “There were women in that parade dressed in such an extreme style that not only their ankles, “I was interrupted with a cacophony of mock gasps, “but their entire leg to the knee showed.”[12]

            “No, not the knees!” “Heaven forbid!” “Scandalous!” came the replies from my listeners before the lot of us broke into a fit of laughter. When we finally composed ourselves, I read on. “One man said that he felt as though he had been witnessing a procession of Annette Kellermans, for though these women’s figures are not as good,” I paused for a round of boos, “they revealed quite as much of them as she does in her bathing tights.”[13]  Laugh as we did, Mrs. Dodge was far from the only woman to profess such an absurd ideology.  Only a few days before, another Washington Post article had cause quite a stir in our headquarters.  It was Inez who read this one aloud. She had started her reading in an airy, high-pitched voice, but as she read on the humorous tone fell to the wayside as we all began to burn with rage. The article, “Absurd to Seek Vote,” was based on an interview with Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, a regular thorn in our side.[14] She accused us of killing romance before condemning our entire sex as hysterical and jealous.[15] What really pushed us over the edge was her declaration, “when you start to fight men, women always get the worst of it. You get better treatment from men by being pleasant with them.”[16]  What a raucous chorus of dissent that raised!  Inez kept reading to herself through the din, but was too enraged to finish, tossing aside the paper and stepping outside to compose herself.  I followed her out, feeling in very much the same temperament. We did not speak at first, both of our throats sealed with rancor.  When she did speak, Inez’s voice cracked with emotion.

            “What are we fighting for if women aren’t even with us?” she demanded, more to the heavens than to me. I truly did not have an answer for her.  I will never forget the despair and distress on her face in that moment. It was made even more heart wrenching when juxtaposed with the image of her burned into my memory only a few weeks earlier. Sitting astride a snow-white stallion, her white robes tossing in the wind: Ethereal, confident, the very image of Victory Herself.[17]  It was amazing anyone in the crowd managed a frown in the presence of her radiant smile.[18] Now, a scant passage of time had worn away that euphoria. The figure before me was no goddess, just a woman, undeniably human, no matter how beautiful.  This was a war that would take its toll on us all, but Inez would pay the largest price by far. The poor dear quite literally worked herself to death for our cause. I will never forget the moment I heard of her passing, and I still hold on to a clipping of her obituary back home so as to retain the memory of her I suppose. It hailed her as a martyr for suffrage whose, “death was a needless sacrifice, made necessary because women have to fight for justice.”[19]  And what a martyr she is! Her last words to the public are often quoted amongst us, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”[20] What gravitas! Shakespeare himself could not compose such as poignant send-off. When this struggle becomes gruesome, I often repeat these words to myself and my resolve becomes steeled. 

            My reverie is broken by the dreaded sound of shoes clicking towards my cell. My stomach lurches in anticipation of what is to come. I take a deep, shaking breath to steady myself.  Remember what you are fighting for, I command myself. Images of strikes, fires, parades flash through my mind. The footsteps are getting closer. Remember. Rose Parr, Alice Paul, Inez Milholland. They emerge before me and unlock the cell door. Rough hands grasp beneath my arms. I attempt to walk, but crumple like a rag doll in spite of myself. They simply readjust their grips and drag me along, my feet sliding against the cold linoleum. Remember. I am tossed into the chair; my limbs are bound. They pry at my teeth with a metal contraption that I do not get a clear view of.[21] I keep my teeth clamped shut as hard as I possibly can, but they force them apart. Then, the tube goes down. Somedays I am in too much distress to feel it, but today I know immediately when it reaches my stomach.[22] My gums are bleeding. My throat aches as if it had been clawed apart. My body resists, of natural instinct I suppose, I know not where the energy to do so comes from. There is something spewing in the air above me. I know not whether it is part of the miserable concoction I am being fed, or from my body which is rejecting it. Either way, I pity the poor souls whom it peppers.[23] They are just doing their job, but by God what a horrid task it is. Finally, the torture is over. The tube scrapes against my throat as it is retracted, only to be followed out by bile. The observing doctor remarks that I have taken it all quite well before I am hauled back off to my cell. If I take it well I dread to imagine how Alice is fairing, she expressed great anxiety about forcible feedings before we undertook our hunger strike.[24]  I collapse onto my cot, my knees curled up to my chest. My throat feels as though it had been soaked in kerosene and set ablaze, my head thunders as it always does after the ordeal.[25] Despite every effort to resist it, my body betrays me by letting forth such awful, choking sobs that I must sound quite mad to anyone within earshot.

 I think of President Wilson with rancor. How I would love to be a fly on the fall when he realizes that such bullying will not stop our movement![26] What a great hypocrite he is, sending our boys to fight for democracy abroad whilst denying it so ardently to the women at home!  Despite my current suffering, this line of thought produces a burning desire to return to the picket lines. At first we were not much more than a minor slight, perhaps even a source of amusement to him.[27] He would even wave to us as he came and went, such was his audacity. The war changed everything.[28] Now, they look for any excuse to remove us, for we are a constant reminder of his rather transparent façade as the leader of the free world.  Such hypocrisy is written plainly enough on our banners. One, in particular, which has caused us a reasonable bit of trouble quotes Wilson’s own war message:

We shall fight for the things which we have always held dear to our hearts—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments.[29]

Well, I personally liked that one a great bit, but it did not take so well with the President, or the public for that matter. We were being arrested with more frequency and the violence against us mere steps from the White House is nearly unspeakable. Day in and day out we returned to that place, mentally steeling ourselves for the abuse which we knew would be headed our way. Sometimes we would be quite fortunate. On those lucky days, the worst offense was an egg or tomato being hurled in our direction followed by some defamation of our patriotism.[30] Those accusations always perplexed me. What was possibly more American than taking a stand for justice? Was our very nation not founded upon a series of protests and demands for greater freedom? These were points I pondered as I absorbed their insults in silence. Naturally, the words were the least of our concerns, for on other days physical violence was committed against us. I will never forget how every follicle on my scalp ached for days after I was dragged by my hair by a gentleman against whom the supervising police took no action.[31] Frequently our signs were ripped from our hands by men who screamed at us or spat in our faces.[32]  Such indignities I have endured and will continue to endure for as long as it takes for President Wilson to present us with the fullest rights of citizenship to which we are entitled. This is America for Christ’s sake! We have to be greater than this. This is a nation founded on the principle of freedom, justice, and equality , and yet we have fallen so woefully short of those ideals. The United States did not need to look abroad to find inequalities to right, it simply needed to take an honest look in the mirror. When our leaders were too cowardly to do so, we became the mirror they could not evade. We demonstrated the discrepancy between what this nation says it stands for and what it actually practices. The health and safety of immigrant workers has been compromised in the name of profit. The ability of women and minorities to participate fully in our democracy has been continually denied to them. The dignity of scores of women has been violated by empowered and angry men who seek to hold them down. That decrepit portrait is the honest depiction of America today. I will keep fighting until this is a nation in which every man, woman, and child is guaranteed the rights and liberties which their mere existence entitles them to. I will keep enduring terrible indignities until concrete and permanent change is brought to this nation for, “God knows, we don’t want other women ever to have to do this over again.”[33]


Footnotes

[1] Sharon McConnell-Sidorick, Silk Stockings and Socialism: Philadelphia’s Radical Hosiery Workers from the Jazz Age to the New Deal (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017),15, accessed November 25, 2018, EBSCOhost.

[2] “Day in the Life of a Mill Child – Child Labor in North Carolina Textile Mills,” Google Sites, accessed November 25, 2018, https://sites.google.com/site/childlabornctextilemills/Home/day-in-the-life-of-a-mill-child.

[3] “141 Men and Girls Die in Waist Factory Fire; Trapped High Up In Washington Place Building; Street Strewn With Bodies; Piles of Dead Inside,” New York Times, March 26, 1911, accessed November 27, 2018, ProQuest.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Officers and National Organizers | Selected Leaders of the National Woman’s Party | Articles and Essays | Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party | Digital Collections | Library of Congress,” Library of Congress, accessed November 27, 2018, https://www.loc.gov/collections/women-of-protest/articles-and-essays/selected-leaders-of-the-national-womans-party/officers-and-national-organizers/.

[6] David Von Drehle, Triangle: The Fire That Changed America (Bridgewater, NJ: Distributed by Paw Prints/Baker & Taylor, 2008), 59.

[7] Ibid, 61.

[8] Ibid, 64-66.

[9] Ibid, 68-69.

[10] “Officers and National Organizers | Selected Leaders of the National Woman’s Party | Articles and Essays | Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party | Digital Collections | Library of Congress,” Library of Congress, accessed November 27, 2018, https://www.loc.gov/collections/women-of-protest/articles-and-essays/selected-leaders-of-the-national-womans-party/officers-and-national-organizers/.

[11] “Sex Appeal in Parade,” The Washington Post, May 14, 1913, accessed December 2, 2018, ProQuest.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14]  “Absurd to Seek Vote,” The Washington Post, May 11, 1913, accessed December 2, 2018, ProQuest.

[15]  Ibid.

[16]  Ibid.

[17] Leet Brothers, Inez Milholland Riding a White Horse in a Suffrage Parade, March 3, 1913, Washington D.C., accessed December 2, 2018, EBSCOhost.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Mrs. Boissevain Dead: End Comes in Los Angeles After Blood Transfusions Fail,” Washington Post, November 27, 1916, accessed December 2, 2018, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[20] Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom: American Women Win the Vote, ed. Carol O’Hare and Edith Mayo (NewSage, 1995) 53.

[21] E. Sylvia Pankhurst, “Forcibly Fed: The Story of My Four Weeks in Holloway Gaol,” McClure’s Magazine, August 1913,90, accessed December 2, 2018, http://www.unz.com/print/McClures-1913aug-00087.

[22] Ibid, 90.

[23] Rose Winslow, “Prison Notes, Smuggled to Friends from the District Jail (1917),” in Treacherous Texts: An Anthology of U.S. Suffrage Literature, 1846-1946, ed. Mary Chapman and Angela Mills (Rutgers University Press, 2011), 283.

[24] Ibid, 283.

[25]Ibid, 283.

[26] Ibid, 283.

[27] Belinda A. Stillion Southard, “Militancy, Power, and Identity: The Silent Sentinels as Women Fighting for Political Voice,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 10, no. 3 (Fall 2007):403, accessed December 2, 2018, EBSCOhost.

[28] Bethany Groff and Michael Shally-Jensen, “Prison Writings of a Radical Suffragist,” in Defining Documents: The 1920’s (Salem Press, 2014),155, accessed December 2, 2018, EBSCOhost.

[29] Belinda A. Stillion Southard, “Militancy, Power, and Identity, 409.

[30] Belinda A. Stillion Southard, “Militancy, Power, and Identity, 410.

[31] Ibid, 409.

[32] Ibid, 409.

[33] Rose Winslow, “Prison Notes, Smuggled to Friends from the District Jail (1917),” 283.

Image

Rose Winslow of New York, Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. accessed April 2nd, 2020. https://www.loc.gov/item/mnwp000190

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s