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Violence and the Origins of the Modern World, Episode S17/157

The Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Bisbee Deportation & the American Labor Movement

by R. Anthony Arnold
July 2022

This is Smart Politix, and I’m your host Anthony Arnold.

As I mentioned in the first episode, this show is going to focus on the relationship between violence and social change. Now typically, when we think of the big social changes in the 20th century we think of the Civil Rights movement.

And for good reason. The way that the events of that movement linger and matter even today are obviously important. You can hear the echoes and feel the reverberations when we talk about what we teach at school, what to do about affirmative action, or how to address the problem of police violence.

But, it wasn’t the only big social change of that century, and it’s the other two that are going to be the focus of this episode. Women’s Suffrage, and the Labor movement.

In the first episode I said, “Political violence isn’t a thing that happens somewhere else, and it’s not something that only happened in the distant past.” Our country, and our world, is built on violence. Our only hope of understanding, and hopefully preventing, the violence we face today, is by accepting the fact that political violence remains as much a possibility now as ever.

Women’s Suffrage

When you hear those words, what do you picture? The answer for a lot of people is probably an image that looks, at least vaguely, like Susan B. Anthony. An older woman, probably white, sitting down. Maybe even wearing a bonnet. Not to be too blunt about it, but I think the entire movement has always had a loose connotation with “housewife” for a lot of people.

This image isn’t entirely a lie, of course. Susan B. Anthony really was a white woman, and the images we have of her are largely from when she was older. But the fact that this image has come to stand-in for the movement as a whole is regrettable, because it detracts from the revolutionary spirit that animated it.

Women’s suffrage wasn’t some dry affair, and it wasn’t hammered out in parlors and kitchens. But, I’m not looking to give you a history lesson on the movement as a whole. The part that I’m talking about is the violence, particularly the violence that showed up at the tail end of it, right as women grew closest to reaching the finish line.

That may surprise most of you.

The push for the Nineteenth Amendment, which says you cannot deny the right to vote on the basis of sex, has vanished down the black hole of our nation’s memory. It gets lost in the discussion of other notable events from that time, like World War 1 or the Spanish Flu.

But that’s a real shame, because some of the details surrounding it are amazing, and shocking.

In 1913 Alice Paul, one of the later leaders of the movement, helped organize a rally in D.C., the purpose of which was to advocate for a national amendment giving women the right to vote. This rally included a Joan of Arc on horseback. Like I said, these women were amazing, flashy, flamboyant, and not afraid to cause a scene. But, as you may have guessed given the subject of this series, it was met with violence. Real violence.

Over 500,000 people had showed up to witness this rally, and a large number of those were drunk and belligerent men who didn’t want their housewives doing politics. So they started attacking the women. Reports from the time talk about women being shoved, beaten, spit on, and having cigars put out on their bodies. The police, as they had and still have a tendency to do, were unmoved, with some of them passively encouraging the violence.

So, here we have a story, not of housewives or meekness, but of bold visionaries being attacked in the streets of our nation’s capital, merely for advocating for the right to vote. But this wasn’t the last time women’s suffrage would be met with violence.

Four years later, once again in Washington, the women were back, this time picketing President Wilson outside the White House, one of the first times that had ever happened. This was during World War 1, which explains one of the signs reading “Kaiser Wilson, Have you forgotten your sympathies with the poor Germans because they were not self-governed? 20,000,000 American Women are not self-governed. Take the Beam Out of Your Own Eye.” They were accusing the President of being a hypocrite, claiming to be fighting on behalf of freedom while doing nothing to address their own lack of it. But like before, this too was met with violence.

Nearly 200 women were arrested, and sent to prison. Where they were reportedly beaten, tortured, and force-fed when a few of them, including Alice Paul, went on a hunger strike. A technique that Paul had used in London, when she suffered violence and imprisonment there as well for advocating for the vote.

This violence is part of the full story of Women’s Suffrage in the United States. The right to vote wasn’t obtained easily, or peacefully. Like the American revolution centuries before, and the movements that would follow it, it was only won after facing unimaginable backlash.

But owning that fact is difficult. One of the narratives we’ve told ourselves is that violence and terror were only deployed against certain minorities. That doesn’t make it right, but it makes us more comfortable to believe that our nation’s worst habits only showed up some of the time. It makes our flaws easier to make sense of.

The suffrage movement forces us to confront the reality that when half the country advocated for the right to vote, we treated them poorly. We, as a country, saw women asking to be treated equally, and we did everything in our power to try and make sure that never happened.

This wouldn’t be the last time we responded that way.

The Labor Movement

While the violence of the suffrage movement may be surprising, there’s at least some sense that the fight for worker’s rights wasn’t exactly peaceful. And we recognize the power of the movement itself, which is why we have a holiday named after it. But even though we understand some of the sacrifice, and appreciate the gains won, I don’t think we realize the degree to which arrests, attacks, and even death were a part of the struggle.

For the first 10 years of the 20th century, from 1900-1910 there were numerous attacks against, and by, various labor groups.

The Colorado Labor Wars, as an example, featured hundreds of people being detained, shot, and beaten by police, who would eventually end up empowered through the declaration of martial law. It also featured strikebreakers and non-union members being blown up, repeatedly, by union members. There was the Chicago teamsters’ strike in 1905, which would end up involving thousands of workers. Over the course of 3 months a dozen people were killed, over twice as many were shot, and many more were injured. Again, police were called in to break workers, and guards were hired for the purpose of intimidating protesters.

And over the years that followed, similar instances of violence and bloodshed would be repeated around the country. Clothing workers striking in New York. Steel workers in Pennsylvania. Lumber workers in Louisiana and textile workers in Massachusetts. In every one of these examples the scenario played out largely the same.

Workers, demanding things such as better pay or an 8 hour workday, were met with violence in the form of arrests, beatings, and sometimes shooting from police or guards. When the federal government intervened it was often on the side of the companies, not the workers.

But there’s one incident in particular that’s so shocking that I wanted to draw special attention to it. Of all the violence that occurred around the labor movement, the Bisbee Deportation might just be the worst.

Bisbee, Arizona is one of towns so small you probably wouldn’t be able to find it on a map. With a current population just under 5,000 it’s not exactly a hotspot. But in the early part of the 20th century it was an industry town, and that industry was mining. Mining was, and still is, hard work. And in an effort to make it better the workers went on a peaceful strike, demanding things like better safety standards, better pay, and an end to the discrimnation some workers were receiving from their superiors. All of which seem like reasonable requests. Unsurprisingly though, these requests were all denied.

So we have striking workers, a company refusing to meet their demands, and both sides are dug in. This is ordinarily where the authorities would be called in to bust heads. Except the governor and the President weren’t going for it this time. So what did the company do?

They organized over 2,000 local men, deputized them, and began mass deportations of workers. They, quite literally, arrested every man involved, killing two, until they had arrested nearly 2,000 men. Then, they forced nearly 1,300 of them onto train cars, with no water or food, in the middle of July in Arizona, and took them nearly 200 miles away, into Hermanas, New Mexico. Where they were dropped off with no money, no water, no food, and instructions not to ever return to their homes.

And of course, there were never any real consequences paid by anybody for this.

It’s one of those events so shocking that you struggle to even believe it. How could something so insane, so awful, not be taught to everyone? When I first read about it while researching this episode I must have looked at a dozen different sources, including a paper from 1917, just to make sure I wasn’t missing something. I just couldn't figure out how I hadn’t heard about it.

But that kind of sums up our understanding of the labor movement as a whole. Our understanding of what it took to win something like the 40 hour work week is incomplete. And our understanding of why it was stopped is non-existent.

The American labor movement was crushed by violence. What benefits we enjoy today were won in the face of that violence, and were sometimes won only after workers engaged in a bit of their own violence. Like everything else we’ve talked about up until now, you cannot understand the history of labor without understanding that violence has been a key part of it.

But what’s most interesting, and has the greatest consequences today, is that we still don’t understand the price that was paid by those that came before us. Between women’s suffrage and labor, you’re talking about two movements whose impacts would have reached into homes and communities across the nation.

Think about the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people whose lives have been shaped by the victories that were won. And then remember that each of these victories came at an extraordinarily high cost.

One lesson of this series is that we underestimate the potential for future violence because we downplay the extent of it in the past. The other is that we still don’t understand that our modern world is built on a combination of potent ideas, and real bloodshed.

So join me on the next episode as I explore the 60’s and 70’s, highlighting both the history you know, and the history you’ve likely never heard of.