By Elizabeth Schondelmayer and Amber Anderson
Undergraduate students, Michigan State University
On May 14, 1880, one of America’s most dedicated suffragists, was born in the state of New York: Lillian Ascough. A new face to the political realm when her involvement began, Ascough joined the following of Alice Paul and fought furiously for American women to obtain the right to vote nationwide. Having studied for the concert stage in London and Paris, Ascough had a steady career singing for radio and was married to the manager of the Detroit Regent Theatre, William D. Ascough. However, she gave up her future as a performer to pursue the aims of the suffrage movement.
On April 9, 1916, Ascough joined 22 other women on a five-week train tour across the western part of the United States called the Suffragist Special. The purpose was to persuade women to attend a meeting in Chicago thet following June to organize the National Woman's Party. From August through October of that same year, she participated in a movement organized by the NWP and the Congressional Union for Woman’s Suffrage that sent volunteers to states where women already had the right to vote to push for a federal amendment legalizing suffrage on a national level.
In August 1918 and February 1919, Ascough took part in the ongoing NWP picketing of the White House. As a way to generate controversy and, thereby, to draw attention to their cause, the women picketed the White House until they were forced to relocate their protest to Lafayette Square on the opposite side of the street, where they demonstrated in response to presidential inaction on the women’s suffrage bill. Over the course of eight days, over 100 women were arrested, including Ascough. She was sentenced to 15 days in jail only to be sentenced to another five days the following February due to her involvement in a watch fire demonstration. The purpose of these demonstrations was to highlight the United States’ hypocrisy as it fought for democracy overseas yet denied women the right to vote at home. The demonstrators symbolically burned copies of President Wilson’s speeches.
In response to a Senate vote rejecting the women’s suffrage amendment by one vote on February 10, 1919, Ascough joined the Prison Special Tour five days later. This tour ran from February through March, during which time 26 suffragists traveled the country from San Francisco to Boston in prison uniforms to tell their stories of imprisonment. These tales included recollections of violence, unsanitary conditions, and painful force-feeding when hunger strikes were attempted in the name of peaceful protest. During their three-week tour, the women addressed large crowds at each stop to promote their cause and protest President Wilson's failure to advocate for the suffrage amendment.
Lillian Ascough’s efforts led to multiple leadership roles throughout her career. She held the position of Chairman for the Connecticut State NWP and served as vice president of the Michigan branch of the NWP. She received praise directly from leader Alice Paul, a person whom Ascough deeply admired and spoke highly of herself. On August 26, 1920, Ascough and her peers saw their hard work pay off; the 19th Amendment became law, allowing women the right to vote in local, state, and national elections throughout the U.S. In 1933, Ascough went back to a career in music, performing for a radio station in Chicago. She died in December of 1974 in New Castle, Delaware, a champion of feminist causes who deserves to be remembered and respected.
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Chicago, Illinois. Radio Guide. October 21, 1933. http://www.americanradiohistory.com/Archive-Radio-Guide/1933/Radio-Guide-33-10-21.pdf
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Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom: American Women Win the Vote (Troutdale, Oregon: New Sage Press, 1995), p. 354.
Jayne Morris-Crowther, The Political Activities of Detroit Clubwomen in the 1920s: a challenge and a promise (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013).
Patri O'Gan. "Traveling for Suffrage Part 4: Riding the rails." Smithsonian website accessed May 5, 2016. http://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/2014/03/traveling-for-suffrage-part-4-riding-the-rails.html