By Antonia Petrash
Reformer, suffragist, birth control advocate.
Kitty Marion was born Katherina Marie Schafer in Westphalia, Germany, March 1871. Her mother, stepmother, and brother all died of tuberculosis, leaving Kitty in the care of her grandmother and abusive father. When her grandmother died in 1886, she sought refuge in England with an aunt. There she was isolated by her lack of language skills, and had few friends. Dreaming of a career on stage, she took dancing lessons, changed her name to Kitty Marion, and from 1889 to 1903 developed an impressive career as a singer and dancer in music halls throughout England and Europe. Sexually uneducated and naive, Kitty encountered many who viewed female performers as ripe for sexual exploitation. Frustration with such unfair prejudices enflamed her social conscience, and framed her response to injustices she would encounter throughout her life.
In 1908 fellow performers invited her to a rally of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by Emmeline Pankhurst. At first she resisted; Kitty considered suffragettes to be “hooligans.” “Just don't expect me to fight the police and be run in,” she joked, but as she listened to descriptions of discriminatory working conditions and unequal pay in the labor market her ideas began to change. The vote could help protect women from unscrupulous agents and unfair contracts. “The scales were falling from my eyes,” she remarked, “so I joined the militants, wore the colors … and absorbed the gospel of ‘Votes for Women.’”
In October 1908 she joined a peaceful demonstration visiting Prime Minister Asquith, where the women were suddenly set upon by the police, assaulted, and abused. Disillusioned, she joined a more militant group; her first assignment was throwing rocks through the windows of a post office. She was arrested and imprisoned, and while in prison staged a hunger strike, resulting in her first experience of being force-fed. Upon release Kitty joined the arson detail, torching a local MP’s house. In 1913 she committed her most daring act – torching the grandstand at Hurst Park Racecourse, the recent scene of the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison. Careless, Kitty and her accomplice were quickly identified and arrested. Kitty was sentenced to three years in prison. After her release she clashed with police repeatedly. Often staging hunger strikes, she was force-fed 232 times during one prison sentence.
In 1915 Kitty immigrated to the United States where she also became active in the suffrage movement. She lent her support during the White House picketing campaign in 1917, selling suffrage newspapers to onlookers. On July 5, 1917 she was swept up in a familiar mass arrest, charged with disorderly conduct, but later released.
After years of fighting for women’s right to vote, Kitty became involved in Margaret Sanger’s campaign to disseminate birth control information and devices. Now she saw that birth control could offer women freedom from the expense and physical debilitation of unwanted pregnancies. For many years she sold the controversial Birth Control Review on street corners of New York City, and despite the fact that she broke no laws, faced frequent harassment and arrest. In 1929, the American Birth Control League stopped selling the Review on street corners. Kitty was given a luncheon and an award of $500 in recognition of her services. She later worked as a speech therapist and teacher in New York. She died October 9, 1944 in New York City.
In all of her campaigns Kitty never assumed a leader’s role, preferring to be thought of as a “soldier.” When asked why she resorted to violence she replied, “I’m not a vandal. I hate destruction of any sort. But we wanted the vote and we destroyed property to get it because men think so much more of property than they do of humanity. It was no task for me to fight that way for freedom … But I didn’t dream that I would one day participate in freeing womankind from the two greatest shackles that they have borne – unwanted children and the lack of the vote.”
Kitty Marion’s unpublished autobiography can be found in the Kitty Marion Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, NY Public Library.
“Kitty Marion, Fighter, Looks for a New Cause,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (February 11, 1930): 3.
“Luncheon for Miss Marion. Birth Control League Honors Woman Who Sold Its Journal,” New York Times (February 12, 1930): 28.
“White House Riot Broken Up by Police,” New York Times (July 5, 1917): 9.
https://spartacus-educational.com/WmarionK.htm. British History, Women’s Suffrage, Kitty Marion.