Women’s Suffrage and Edna Purtell
Women on Different Continents fighting for a common cause.
Both Eva Gore Booth and Edna Purtell and others like them fought for women’s rights but in different ways and on different shores.
Eva Gore Booth, an Anglo-Irish woman from County Sligo Ireland, had always been sensitive to the plight of others, as was her more famous sister, Constance Gore Booth or the Rebel Countess as she became known during Ireland’s rebellious past. Both women grew up educated, well cared for, and worldly. While Constance would live most of her adult life in Ireland, Eva moved to Manchester, England to live with her lifelong companion, Esther Roper. Both women worked toward women’s suffrage, a journey they spent their lifetime traveling through. They wrote letters, created posters and banners, and gave speeches. Had anyone listened though? Anyone that could give women the vote which would help them change their circumstances.
The fight for women’s suffrage was not a new war nor an unusual battle at this time in history yet the way Eva and Esther fought was different from many who spoke out in England and even in America. Eva and Esther were pacifists while the rest of the world moved toward more controversial and often risky means of protest.
The media labeled them, Suffragettes.
These women believed the only way to win women the vote was to force the general public, specifically men, to stand up and take notice of their demands. The only way to do that .. was to shock them.
They began with marches.
For their efforts, many women were thrown in jail both here in America and in England.
Some went on hunger strikes and were force fed cruelly.
Women were put in the same category as criminals, people needing to be controlled for their own good. In fact, it was a common belief among men that educated women were inferior.
The task of educating girls was the subject of intense debate in Manchester, where Eva and Esther lived.
Mark Pattison, Chief Commissioner of Schools published a report stating, ‘An average man of middle classes prefers a woman who is less educated to one who is more.'(from Petticoat Rebels of 1916)
James Bryce, added to the report, … ‘the defects of women as teachers is they have not themselves been well taught and they do not know how to teach.’ He continued his caustic remarks by saying that the notion women had minds as cultivatable as men’s was offensive.Women with Irish backgrounds fought for Women’s Suffrage from American shores. Edna Purtell was one of these women.
She was Irish American living in the state of Connecticut. As president of an organization that supported Irish independence from Great Britain she soon became involved in politics, most importantly the women’s suffrage movement.
Purtell had some unexpected luck that landed her in Washington.
In 1918 a suffragist rally was set to take place in Washington D.C. Anyone outside of Connecticut would have a difficult time attending as the passage and expense could not be afforded but Purtell had some unexpected luck that landed her in Washington.
A woman by the name of Katharine Mary Houghton, (later when she married, Hepburn) the famous American actress, Katharine Hepburn’s mother provided the funds for Edna Purtell’s trip to the rally. Katharine Hepburn was a suffragette herself and very involved but she was also very pregnant at the time of the Washington rally. She asked Edna, “Could you go to Washington to be arrested and demonstrate?” Edna was thrilled when she learned that Mrs. Hepburn would pay her way.
When I refused he broke two of my fingers taking it away.
A bonfire was set on the sidewalk before the white house and women marched through Lafayette Park shouting slogans and carrying banners. Some climbed a statue of Lafayette and yelled from the top. Said Edna, “I was so young I could climb the statue. The police wouldn’t arrest you until you spoke so I yelled ‘Lafayette we are here.’ I was arrested 4 times. Later a policeman told me they had orders to take our sashes. When I refused he broke two of my fingers taking it away.”
So many women were arrested the jails were overflowing. Police had to decide where to put them so they took many of them to the Washington District Workhouse, a place that was filthy and inadequate with poor drinking water. It was set in a swamp and had been closed down previously finding it ‘unfit for human habitation.’
Edna’s broken fingers had not been treated for over five days!
One by one the women became ill. When U.S Senators visited they were shocked at the conditions of the jail. Most were sleeping on the floor without adequate sanitation or water. Outraged citizens sent hundreds of telegrams to President Wilson. After five days, he had no choice but to set the women free. Edna’s broken fingers had not even been treated yet. The second rally met in Lafayette Park. This time the police did not bother them.