By Judith Poucher
Suffragist, social activist, community leader.
Prior to joining the National Woman's Party (NWP), Mary Nolan led a rather conventional life. Born in Martinsburg, Virginia in 1844, she had been a leader in the southern library movement and established a library in Laurens, South Carolina. Nolan had also been active in the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Her husband, John R. Nolan, was a superintendent for the Southern Railway Company and died in 1913. By 1917, she was a seventy-three year-old suffragist living with her younger daughter and son-in-law and had been in Jacksonville, Florida for seventeen years.
Despite having a handicapped foot, Mary Nolan joined the White House pickets in early November 1917. On November 10, forty-one women, including Nolan, picketed the White House. All were arrested but dismissed without sentence. However, thirty-one of the women, including Nolan, returned to picketing one hour later. She was arrested again, like others refused to pay the assessed fine, and was sentenced to six days in prison. All of the women were committed to the Occoquan Workhouse at Lorton, Virginia. During the night of November 14, 1917, the thirty-one suffragist prisoners were abused repeatedly. Nolan was literally thrown into a punishment cell, landing against the iron bed. After serving her sentence, she was discharged on November 20. Following her release, Nolan went to NWP headquarters and dictated an affidavit about her prison experiences. She also wrote an article for the NWP newspaper, The Suffragist, describing what she called “That Night of Terror.” Her article was the first, full, published account of what became known as the Night of Terror.
Nolan also participated in the NWP's “Watchfires for Freedom.” On January 24, 1919, she burned one of President Wilson's speeches and was arrested. Subsequently, she was arrested four times and served three days in jail. By this time, she was also a member of the NWP's National Advisory Council. In February, Nolan joined other former suffragist prisoners touring the US in a train car called “The Prison Special.” When the Special arrived in Jacksonville, she spoke at an NWP breakfast the next day.
Nolan died after a short illness on May 18, 1925. In 1980, the Jacksonville chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) created the Mary Nolan Award to be given to an outstanding local feminist annually on August 26, Women's Equality Day, which is also Mary Nolan Day in Jacksonville. In 1982, Jacksonville NOW set a headstone at Nolan's grave, unmarked since her death.
There is no full biographical account of Mary Nolan. Her article, “That Night of Terror,” was published on December 1, 1917 in The Suffragist, pp. 7, 14. A feature article on Nolan, by Elizabeth Kalb, appeared on February 8, 1919 in The Suffragist, pp. 8, 9. Nolan's affidavit is in the NWP Papers, reel 52, Library of Congress. Doris Stevens's Jailed for Freedom (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920) quotes Nolan's article extensively on the Night of Terror and her Watchfires arrests. Inez Haynes Irwin's Uphill with Banners Flying: The Story of the Woman's Party (Penobscot, Maine: Traversity Press, 1964) covers Nolan's White House picketing, the Night of Terror, and Watchfires arrests. A. Elizabeth Taylor's article, “The Woman Suffrage Movement in Florida,” Florida Historical Quarterly, 36:1 (July 1957): 42-60 briefly mentions Nolan's November 10, 1917 arrest. In Iron-Jawed Angels (Lanham, New York: University Press of America, 1991), Linda G. Ford relates Nolan's role in the White House picketing, gives brief background information on her, and uses her affidavit. J. D. Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry's Alice Paul: Claiming Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) covers Nolan's November 10, 1917 arrest and her abuse during the Night of Terror.
A photograph of Mary A. Nolan appears at https://www.loc.gov/item/mnwp000040.