By Julianna Spring, undergraduate student, Central Connecticut State University
Edna Mary Purtell was an Irish American suffragist who lived in Connecticut. Edna Purtell was born in Hartford in February 1899 and died (unmarried) in West Hartford in December 1985. In the 1920 census, Edna lived in Hartford with her parents and three siblings and was recorded as a typist. By 1930 she continued to live with her parents and worked as a stenographer in the insurance industry. In 1940 she worked for the State of Connecticut in the Labor Department and lived with her father and two younger siblings. Throughout Edna's life she was passionate about women's suffrage, from being president of the Muriel McSweeney club (a women’s organization that supported Irish independence), to being a winner of the Susan B Anthony Award. She also attended meetings of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) and was secretary of the Tobacco Strippers.
Purtell's passion for women’s suffrage started from a young age. When Purtell was 19 years old, she attended a women’s suffrage demonstration in Washington, D.C. organized by the National Woman's Party. All Purtell’s expenses were paid for by Katharine Hepburn, who was active in the Connecticut women’s suffrage movement. Unfortunately, Hepburn could not attend the protest since she was pregnant, but was happy to send Purtell in her place. Purtell was the youngest woman at the suffrage protest.
At the women’s suffrage protest in Washington D.C. some of the protesters were posted in front of the White House while others marched through Lafayette Park. The event was aimed at pressuring President Wilson to urge Congress to pass a constitutional amendment providing votes for women. The women were deliberately courting arrest to garner media attention. Protestors were not arrested until they spoke. Purtell, aware of this screamed “Lafayette, we are here,” while climbing the statue of Lafayette. Purtell was arrested four times in one day. When summarily tried, she was convicted for climbing a statue and, like others, given the choice of a fine or jail time. She chose jail.
While arrested, a police officer asked Purtell to remove her suffragist sash. When she refused to remove her sash, the police officer used force to remove the sash, breaking two of her fingers. Purtell did not receive treatment for her broken fingers from the jail, and was forced to wait until she was out of prison to seek medical attention.
To discourage the women, Purtell and the others were sent to the Old District Workhouse, which previously had been closed down since it was “unfit for human habitation.” The jail had poor living conditions since it had not been cleaned previously. Women were forced to sleep on the floor and the water of the prison was undrinkable. Many women became ill from their short jail sentence. Throughout Purtell’s jail time, she was on a 6-day hunger strike to protest the conditions.
In 1920, Edna Purtell voted for the first time. This allowed her to give attention to other causes such as reform of child labor laws, the right for women serve on juries, and to continue her fight against the tobacco industry. It is evident that Edna Purtell was a significant suffragist, as well as a courageous woman.
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