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Dissenting Women

“Everyone must know about this.”

– Linda Ford, Women Politicals in America (p. 531)

Historian Linda Ford has written a stunning book: Women Politicals in America: Jailed Dissenters from Mother Jones to Lynne Stewart (2018, 564 pp.). In addition to the harrowing tales of women freedom fighters, we may be reminded of our national history through this lens. Ford’s book raises important questions we need to ponder. Women’s activism has sometimes promoted equality and freedom; what methods and political environment have enabled these advances? How have repression and co-optation diminished the struggles for justice? What still remains to fulfill the aspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the genuine “American Dream”?

Since the 1960s, radical militancy challenging the root causes of poverty, racism, and war has cooled. One cause is much co-optation of radical protest into nongovernmental organizations. Another strike against signficant change was COINTELPRO, which disrupted movements and scared away new supporters. However, repression has been constant since colonial times. Ford, in her biographical sketches of women political prisoners, describes this in great detail. Along the way, similarly harsh treatment of male politicals is revealed. Even lawyers trying to ensure constitutional rights of accused dissenters are targeted. We are also reminded of the dismal state of justice and prison conditions for ordinary criminals.

Ford maintains that women dissenters, because they were not only challenging government and social norms, but were “unnatural, unladylike” and protesting patriarchy, were more heavily punished than men. In colonial times, women preachers were arrested and executed; their heresy was a double effrontery.

Our government does not acknowledge that there have been and still are political prisoners in the US. Yet in 1990 a Special International Tribunal on the Human Rights Violations of Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War in the United States concluded that “as the U.S. government proclaims itself to be a defender of human rights in the world, demanding the freedom of political prisoners in other countries, it forcefully denies the existence of over 100 Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War within its own prisons by claiming they are ‘terrorists.’”

The defendants were the Government of the United States ofAmerica;George Bush, President;Richard Thornburgh, Attorney General; William Sessions, Director of the FederalBureau of Investigation; William Webster, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency; Michael Quinlan, Director of the Bureau of Prisons; the Director of the Federal Parole Board; the Governors, Directors of the Prisons and Directors of the Parole Boards ofEach State Wherein Political Prisoners orPrisoners of War are Incarcerated—and their predecessors.

The Tribunal concluded:

We find that the defendants’ treatment of political prisoners and prisoners of war constitutes torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of Article 6the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and contravenes most of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The USgovernment is also in breach of the First, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States and their equivalent provisions in the various state constitutions; the Declaration on the Protection of AllPersons from being Subjected to Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the American Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention and the protocols thereto.

While the loudest organs of the US government deny that international human rights law applies to our great democracy, state and local governments, and even federal courts, sometimes honor it.

Ford describes the travails of women dissenters who were imprisoned, often tortured, and subjected to degrading treatment for their protest, civil disobedience, nonviolent resistance or alleged criminal activities. Some admitted to civil disobedience in the name of a higher law; others may well have engaged in felonious activities but we can’t know for sure because due process lacked in many cases.

Ford’s women politicals begins with Anne Hutchinson, jailed in 1638 for heresy, and then exiled from Massachusetts Bay. Shaker Ann Lee was jailed for six months in 1780, as leader of a pacifist group; dissent from the US war of independence was not tolerated. Nevertheless, throughout the 19thcentury (until 1917), pacifism was quite respectable among educated elites and the fundamentalist religious communal societies.

The early 20thcentury began the massive imprisonment of women. One hundred sixty-eight women, mostly members of the non-violent National Woman’s Party, were jailed for suffrage militancy. Mother Jones, anticapitalist union organizer for Knights of Labor; Lucy Parsons, anarchist; and Emma Goldman, a double threat as an anarchist and anti-war; along with many others were imprisoned. The 1917 Espionage Act and the 1918 Sedition Act resulted in jail or exile for many citizens, men and women. The US Socialist Party, alone among world socialists, and fundamentalist German-origin communities were opposed to World War I, and both groups paid dearly for it.

The Bolshevik Revolution and the formation of the US Communist Party inspired a long witch hunt. Mother Bloor, a founder of the CP and a union orgnizer, was arrested under state criminal syndicalism laws in 1920. State laws, including loyalty oath requirements for occupational licensing, were a major part of the anti-communist crusade that began in the 1920s. The state prosecutions led to the earliest cases based on the Bill of Rights to reach the US Supreme Court.

Although many of the legal firms defending dissenters (and blacks subjected to criminal injustice, such as the “Scottsboro Boys”) were Communist Party affiliated, the Party followed the “Popular Front” line against fascism during World War II. Thus it did not didn’t speak out in defense of jailed anti-war people or the interned Japanese-Americans, and it did not provide firm support for the Rosenbergs until they were sentenced to death. There was no credible evidence that Ethel was a spy; in any case, a death sentence for spying in peacetime, conveying information to a nominal ally, was unprecedented.

The McCarran and Smith Acts and many anti-communist state laws, led to the harrassment, imprisonment, and silencing of radical women. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a rare female leader of the CP, was jailed many times, convicted under the Smith Act, and spent two years at the Alderson Federal Reformatory for Women in West Virginia.

Women were often sent to institutions that imposed particularly degrading conditions on women political prisoners. Many were incarcerated at Alderson, where, amidst the horrors, they met other women politicals for the first time and formed strong supportive relationships. Furthermore, as is often the case with politicals, their dreams of liberation and justice influenced the ordinary inmates, many of whom were drug dealers and prostitutes.

The Anti-imperialist, American Indian, Puerto Rican, Chicano, Black Panther, and National Liberation solidarity movements that became militant in the 1950s and 1960s led to many arrests of their women leaders. Some served at the Federal High Security Unit for Women in Lexington, Kentucky. Ford maintains: “The purpose of the unit was to contain and break women political prisoners.” Sexual degradation was everywhere used as a control. Prison tortures included windowless cells with constant white light, prolonged solitary confinement, wormy food, and repeated spraying with DDT. Incarcerated women were sometimes brought to government hospitals for childbirth and were sterilized involuntarity.

In cases where no legal grounds could be found that would persuade judges and juries, dissenters were sometimes framed and charged with ordinary criminal offenses (as Joe Hill was dispatched that way). Because due process was often violated in these cases, we do not know whether, e.g., Assata Shakur of the Black Panther Party killed a New Jersey state trooper in 1973. She was convicted, but escaped and has been living in asylum in Cuba. Environmentalist Judi Bari of Earth First was seriously wounded by a car bomb. She was charged with setting it herself, but avoided imprisonment, and after a long legal battle (and after her death from cancer) the charges were dropped.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee declared in 1979 that prisoners in the US were subject to violations of our treaties. A case against the Kentucky HSU brought by Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union, based on international law and the 1stamendment of the US Bill of Rights, led to the prison’s closure in 1988. Then new HSUs opened at Marianna, Florida and elsewheare.

The anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons movements resulted in more arrests, including 140 participants in the Women’s Pentagon Action of 1980. In 1983, members of the non-violent Seneca Women’s Encampment were prevented from marching on a public road. They sat down in protest and 54 were arrested. The Plowshares movement used civil disobedience as a tactic, and their arrests informed and inspired others.

Things got worse after 9/11. Sister Megan Rice, age 82, trespassed at the Oak Ridge nuclear weapons plant in 2012; she was arrested as a terrorist. School of the Americas Watch marchers, drone protester Kathy Kelly, Palestinian activist Medea Benjamin, and many others faced repression and arrests. Sandra Steingraber was jailed for anti-fracking civil disobedience in 2014. Many native women and their supporters were arrested for protests against uranium mining and the North Dakota pipeline.

Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistanti-born Muslim activist and a neuroscientist who worked in the US, was captured in Afghanistan, accused of being a terrorist, charged with firing a rifle at her captors, and then tortured. She has been serving a sentence of 86 years at the Federal Medical Centre, Carswell, Texas.

The Occupy Wall Street protesters faced brutality and arrests, but did not receive long prison terms. Ford mentions that the National Lawyers Guild assisted in reducing their charges. This radical lawyers’ organization still exists and is still needed in the attempts to form a more just society. Providing legal counsel for any accused person—a basic principle of civil rights—can be dangerous in these GWOT times. Lynne Stewart, a lawyer who defended radicals, criminals, and violent revolutionaries, was herself convicted of aiding terrorists when she violated a regulation about prisoner communication, and was sentenced to 10 years. She served at Carswell, in Fort Worth, Texas and was released after 4 years because of her cancer; she lived for three more years.

Women Politicals reveals a great deal about our criminal justice system, and corroborating evidence indicates that we have a long way to go. A minor theme throughout Ford’s book is the persistent sexism of the women’s male comrades. This was particularly galling to the Native American woman, as they believed it betrayed their cultural traditions of women’s empowerment. While many of the radical women thought it was necessary to confront government and corporate abuse first, some split away into feminist organizations that focused on combatting patriarchy. These, by the way, were among the movements most easily co-opted into “identity politics” organizations favored by foundations anxious to take the heat off capitalism and militarism.

Ford’s unequivocal conclusion is:

America has devolved into an openly violent and repressive state, openly and solely governed by and for corporate interests. Women political protesters have seen any constitutional law relating to the right to protest disappear, . . . The putting down of resistance against the democratic, freedom-loving American government, has been consistent throughout its history; however, the open use of military force has never been so widespread.

More articles by:

Joan Roelofs is Professor Emerita of Political Science, Keene State College, New Hampshire. She is the translator of Victor Considerant’s Principles of Socialism (Maisonneuve Press, 2006), and author of Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (SUNY Press, 2003) and Greening Cities (Rowman and Littlefield, 1996) and translator, with Shawn P. Wilbur, of Charles Fourier’s anti-war fantasy, World War of Small Pastries, Autonomedia, 2015. Web site: www.joanroelofs.wordpress.com  Contact: joan.roelofs@myfairpoint.net

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