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Suffragist Catherine Flanagan

Suffragist Catherine Flanagan

by Her Granddaughter Patricia McDonald

On my maternal side, I am honored to have a grandmother who also was committed to a revolutionary cause—the women’s suffrage movement.

My grandmother Catherine Flanagan was a first-generation Irish immigrant. Her father came to the United States as a political exile, following his efforts in the movement for Irish freedom. His untimely death forced Catherine, the second oldest of seven children, to work at the age of 13.

It is unclear what initially compelled Catherine to the suffrage movement, but by her mid-twenties, Catherine was secretary for the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association (CWSA).

When the U.S. entered World War I, there was a split in the suffrage movement. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), led by Carrie Chapman Catt, focused on war-related tasks, suspended its efforts to pass a federal amendment, and agreed to support President Wilson. The National Woman’s Party (NWP), led by Alice Paul, continued their “silent sentinel” picketing in front of the White House.

Catherine was so dedicated to the suffrage cause that she travelled to Washington on her vacation in August of 1917 to participate in picketing at the White House. Catherine arrived in time to endure the August riots. While peacefully picketing, the women were attacked by the crowd, and their banners were taken from them and torn apart. When the women took refuge in the NWP headquarters across the street from the White House, shots were fired into the headquarters. The riots continued for several days with mobs attacking the women.

Since the violent attacks did not deter the women from picketing, the Wilson administration ordered the women to be arrested. Catherine was arrested along with five other women on August 17. After a summary trial, the women were convicted of “obstructing traffic” and sentenced to 30 days at the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Virginia. The picture of Catherine being arrested with fellow suffragist Madeline Watson is one of the most iconic pictures from the suffrage movement.

While members of the CWSA condemned my grandmother Catherine for the picketing, one dissented. Mrs. Thomas N. Hepburn (the mother of actress Katherine Hepburn) defended them.

“I admire Miss Flanagan very much for being willing to go to jail for her convictions,” said Mrs. Hepburn. “It is more than most people could even conceive of doing for an ideal…If she prefers to spend her vacation working to make our own country safe for democracy…it behooves those who are less public spirited to try to comprehend her unselfish devotion.”

Another member, Mrs. M. Tuscan Bennett, treasurer of the CWSA, told the Hartford Courant the same day, “We are indeed in a sad state of affairs in this country when the government uses its strong arm to protect disorderly mobs in their cowardly assault upon American women, who are still fighting after 50 years for a principal which was held to be a self-evident truth nearly a century and a half ago: namely that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

After arriving back in Connecticut, Catherine commented to reporters, “I am perfectly willing to go back to the picket line. I feel that it is a little thing to do toward the accomplishment of such a great purpose, especially since it seems to be the only thing left for us to do now.” After her release, Catherine continued as a paid organizer for the NWP.

The arrests of 168 women, some of whom suffered especially cruel treatment and forced feeding, created such pressure that Congress finally passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the spring of 1919. The amendment was submitted to the states for ratification on June 4, 1919.

Catherine travelled all over the United States to rally support for the Nineteenth Amendment. She was in Tennessee for the climactic moment when it became 36th state to approve the amendment. Catherine was so revered by her fellow suffragists that when Connecticut ratified the 19th Amendment, she was asked to present the historic document to Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby.

Sources: Excerpts from Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920), 359.

Bridgeport Herald, Sept. 23, 1917.

Hartford Courant, Aug. 18-25 and Sept. 13-16, 1917; Sept. 15, 1920.

Hartford Daily Times, Sept. 15, 20, 1920.

Meriden Morning Record, Aug. 26-Sept. 21, 1920.

Library of Congress, Records of the National Woman’s Party, American Memory Project.

Geer’s Hariford Directory, 1886-1920.

Suffragist newspaper, Aug.-Sept. 1917.

Rampant women: Suffragists and the right of assembly by Linda Lumsden.

Votes and More for Woman: Suffrage and After in Connecticut by Carole Nicho.

The Shanachie, Winter 2006, Vol. XVIII, No. 1 (Conn. Irish-American Historical Society).

Turning Point Suffragist Memorial, Suffragist of the Month.