Imprisonment and Hunger Strikes

During mid-1917 the Women's Party feminists became more and more effective at using the nonviolent resistance techniques similar to those used by Mahatma Gandhi and later by Martin Luther King. They marched, picketed, "obstructed" traffic, held outdoor pageants, and only stopped when physically prevented. They became increasingly more non-cooperative. Under normal circumstances their actions would have been tolerated in America, but as the nation was facing war they were subject to retaliation.

On June 20th, during a visit from the Russian delegation, the NWP held up signs that embarrassed the Wilson government. Alice Paul was warned that if the pickets continued they would be arrested. This time became called the "Russian Incident." On the 22nd Katherine Morey and Lucy Burns were arrested for "obstructing traffic," but the case was dismissed in court. More arrests occurred in the days that followed and the 26th, nine women were arrested, six of who were found guilty of "obstructing the highways." After they refused to pay the 25 dollar fine Katherine Morey, Mabel Vernon, Virginia Arnold, Lavinia Dock, Maud Jamison, and Annie Arniel became the first ever to be incarcerated for advocating women's rights, serving a three day sentence in jail.

The first court scene shown in the Movie Iron Jawed Angels depicts various women in multiple cases testifying before a judge. It shows Lucy Burns as the one who argues their case in court, this can be considered accurate as she did do this in at least one occasion after the 4th of July pickets. The sentence given by the judge in the movie of "ten dollars or sixty days in Occuquan" of sixteen women for obstructing traffic is the accurate actual sentence given to those who picketed on July 14th.

The statements made by Paul after the trial in the movie accurately depict those made by NWP members about the judge being appointed by Wilson, that the court cases were only being used to suppress their appeal to the President, and that the sixty day sentence was only being used to deter further protesting.

What the movie shows that is untrue is that at this time  Lucy Burns is sentenced to prison and starts demanding the status of political prisoner. In reality she was not one of those sent there on this occasion and the sixteen women that were sentenced only stayed for three days before they were pardoned by President Wilson and released.

While the protest in which Alice Paul is arrested in the movie is a real event that happened on August 14, she was not arrested at that time.

It wasn't until later that the suffragists started serving their full sixty day sentence in the Occuquan workhouse. On August 17 six women were arrested and served their full thirty days at the workhouse without being pardoned.  On September 4th Lucy Burns was arrested and sent to Occuquan with 12 other women. And in October she led a campaign in prison demanding that the suffragists be treated as political prisoners, threatening hunger strike.

The basis for their demands was that they were not in jail for being traffic obstructors at all but for opposing a political idea. They demanded legal counsel, food, writing material, books, letters from the outside, consistent sentence time, and for Burns to be removed from solitary confinement. According to the NWP even 17 murderers were given good food, exercise, and newspapers, while the suffragists were given bad food until they got sick, sent to the hospital and fed good until they felt well, then returned to the prison.

On October 20 Alice Paul led a protest and was given six months in Occuquan where she started leading the rebellion from the inside. As shown in the movie one of the first things she wanted after being put in jail was fresh air, and she succeeded in breaking a window. The prisoners caused so many problems that two weeks after Paul arrived all but seven with bigger sentences were released.

Alice Paul and Rose Winslow were ill from the food and were taken to the prison hospital to recover. In order to try and prevent this cruel practice and to continue with the earlier plan of gaining political prisoner status, they decided to hunger strike. After a week of hunger striking they were force fed. After an examination by District Commissioner Gwynne Gardner and a doctor they were moved to the psychopathic ward and force fed three times a week.

Accuracy of jail treatment

At least six of the sixteen women who protested through hunger striking were force fed, the first being Alice Paul and Rose Winslow.
The report of organizer Elizabeth McShane of her treatment is matched very comparable with what the movie shows,
"I know I sound insane, but I've just had the most revolting experience possible. I've been forcibly fed, and I feel that every atom of American self-respect within me has been outraged. . . . They said that they would check my heart, but didn't. . . . Dr. Ladd appeared with a tube that looked like a hose, and a pint of milk in which two egg had been stirred up. Without and heart exam, he put the tube in my mouth and told me to swallow it fast. I did it as fast as I could, but he pushed it down so fast that I gagged and choked terribly. Finally the tube was at what felt like the bottom of my stomach, and my heart was beating so fast that I couldn't get my breath. Then he poured the liquid rapidly down the tube. Of course a stomach that has been unaccustomed to food for a week cannot take so much liquid cold, all in half a minute. That was the actual time. So before he was half through, it began to come up, out of the corners of my mouth and down my neck until my hair was stiff with it. I tried to bite the tube and to pinch it with my hands, to check the flow for a second, but it poured on until all was finished. When he pulled the tube out, it was followed by a large part of the food. Thereupon the matron and he walked away, leaving me in that messy condition, to die if I chose. I couldn't bring it all up at once, . . . as my muscles were trying to do, for other prisoners were eating just outside . . . Lucy Burns comforted me. It was her fifth time"

Lucy Burns in Occuquan

“Night of Terror”

After the eventful couple of days of picketing on November 10 and 11, a diverse group of 33 women were sentenced to Occuquan for different time periods including Lucy Burns for six months. It was these women that endured the cruel treatment depicted in the movie that became known as the "Night of Terror"

The prisoners arrived at Occuquan the night of the 15th and as shown in the movie demanded to see the superintendent of the jail Raymond Whittaker. After a few hours he entered and without giving them a chance to express their desires he commanded his men to seize them. The women were dragged or carried and thrown into cells, some injured in the process. sixty year old Lavinia Dock fell down steps injuring her leg. Alice M. Cosu was shoved against a cell wall by a man with a club. Julia Emory was dragged away while trying to help Dora Lewis whose head had hit an iron bed. When she tried to tie her bag Whittaker told her he would slap her face, and when she tried to take a drink of water she was thrown against a wall and choked by guards. Gladys Greiner's waist was bloody from being assaulted when she opened a window. Dorthy Day had her arms pinched and her wrists twisted and was wrestled down over an iron bench. Lucy Burns was treated roughly in particular. she was beaten and was threatened with a straight jacket if she didn't stop talking   to the other women to see if they were hurt. then, as the movie shows she had her hands handcuffed to the door, above her head. It was Julia Emory who stood in the same position the whole night. None of the women were given medical treatment or even allowed to use the bathroom.
The film shows pretty accurately this treatment without becoming overly graphic.

President Wilson's awareness

President Wilson received numerous letters protesting the treatment of the imprisoned suffragists. However as many of the letters were from the suffragists themselves, whom he believed to be untrustworthy, he initially didn't take any action to ensure the prisoners fair treatment. After receiving a letter from prisoner Ada Davenport Kendall, New York Secret Service head W. G. Flynn reported to President Wilson that he thought that the women were "being treated very harshly." Wilson responded saying that he did "not think that this lady is in the condition of mind to discuss the matter."

It seems that the press was reporting fairly accurately the events in Occuquan, while the government was doing its best to cover up what was happening and discredit those reports.

It is impressive that the movie even includes a scene where psychiatrist Dr. William White asks Paul a series of questions trying to get her to say that she was persecuted by the Wilson administration. This investigation really happened and Paul was able to report to him an entire history of women's suffrage to prove her sanity.

But after receiving more letters and the press paying more attention to the issue Wilson ordered an investigation to make sure the prisoners were being treated fairly, and sent Commissioner Gwynne Gardener. Gardner saw what was happening at Occuquan but chose to tell the President that all was well. He said that food was good, the rooms sanitary, and that the prisoners were kept in clean, well ventilated rooms. He even told the President that Winslow and Paul were willingly force fed. Commissioner Brownlow gave a similar report. Because of this Wilson continued saying that the NWP was exaggerating the conditions, discrediting them as revolutionaries and anarchists. The secret service was investigating members of the NWP all over the country.


Finally after facing pressure from the public Wilson had to give in. As hard as he tried to keep the suffragists quiet they could not be be quieted. On November 23, Judge Edmund Wadill declared that it was illegal that the suffragists had been sent to Occuquan instead of a District Jail. It was decided that they could either be put on parole or finish their term in the District Jail. Twenty-two returned to jail. The New York Times reported on the trial and the statements made decribing the teatment given in Occuquan.

The Note

In the movie it shows a single note being snuck out of the work house, and this note causing an outburst of the press against the women being held in such a place. When contacted Kris Myers of the Alice Paul Institute said this of the note.

"When suffragists got out of prison, the first thing they did was go to the newspapers and report on their conditions in prison.   So this is one way news got out.  There are rumors that one of the female wardens passed notes within the prisons too.  Notes were snuck out by several people but I do not know exactly who snuck notes out of prison. 
So it wasn't one note, but a series of notes and eyewitness accounts that set off a bit of a media nightmare for President Wilson.  He began to receive letters, telegrams, and phone calls complaining about his hand in the suffragists' imprisonment.  This is one of the reasons he changed his mind and had all of the suffragists unconditionally released. "
At least one note, written by Alice, was smuggled out of the prison. It was released to the New York Times by the NWP managers and published on November 19, 1917.
While it may not have been smuggled out in the way the movie shows, and the movie doesn't quote it word for word, It was published and was part of the press that eventually put pressure on the Wilson administration to deal fairly with the suffragists.


The portrayal of the suffragists in jail can be considered fairly accurate. Almost all of what was shown in the movie Iron Jawed Angels pertaining to the jail experience did at one point happen. Most of the discrepancies result from the movie makers attempting to combine multiple events and people that really existed into one event or one person for the movie, leading to chronological errors, and the absence of some events. This is understandable as many of the women were in and out of prison many times of the the course of a few months and it would have been difficult to follow in the movie had they shown things exactly as they happened. 

Photo of Lucy-