Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920

Biography of Gertrude Murphy

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By Erin Harrington
Graduate Student, Eastern Illinois University

Between 1901 and 1905, a Gertrude Murphy appears on the "Journal Junior" page of the Minneapolis Journal twenty-three times. This prize-winning, story writing student may not be the suffragist Gertrude Murphy, but it is interesting to speculate that the honor-roll sixth grader who wrote stories like "Miss Canary’s Concert" in 1902 went on to be the Gertrude Murphy who attended Chicago Teacher’s College in 1910. Our Gertrude Murphy, a music educator in Minnesota public schools, traveled from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C., in the winter of 1918-1919 to advocate for suffrage for women, becoming one of many teachers who took up the cause of votes for women.

On New Year’s Day, 1919, Alice Paul inaugurated her "Watchfires of Freedom" protest in front of the White House. The plan was to keep a fire burning on Pennsylvania Avenue until the Susan B. Anthony Amendment was passed—and to burn each of Wilson’s speeches on European democracy in that fire until women had the right to vote. Over the next several weeks, the police extinguished watchfires and the suffragists rekindled them; the police arrested the demonstrators, and as prisoners the women committed to hunger strikes. By the end of the month, Gertrude would spend time in jail as a result of her participation in the watchfire protests and her support for her arrested peers.

On the evening of January 13, nineteen women were taken into police custody as a result of their demonstration in front of the White House. While Gertrude was not arrested on that night, these arrests set in motion a series of events that would land her in jail. In the Washington Herald the following day, the Superintendent of Police Raymond Pullman declared that his force would adopt more aggressive policing against the suffragists, similar to what he deemed the effective tactics of London police. Pullman’s hope was that, by immediately arresting the suffragists at every demonstration, they could discourage and ultimately stifle the movement.

If the suffragists read Pullman’s words in the Herald, their reaction was one of defiance, not discouragement. When the arrested women were brought to trial on January 14, suffragists in the audience vigorously applauded their fellow protesters until the judge expelled them from the courtroom. After a long day of sentencing, only one woman, Naomi Barrett, remained to be tried the next day. But Barrett was not alone for her trial on January 16: supportive applause rang out from her peers in the audience, one of whom was Gertrude Murphy. Finally, the judge ordered the applauding suffragists, including Murphy, to come forward. Murphy and three fellow applauders were sentenced to 24 hours in jail.

This did not dampen Murphy’s enthusiasm for the cause. The following week, on January 27, Murphy and five fellow suffragists lit another watchfire in front of the White House. Charged with setting a fire after sundown, they were arrested and tried. After refusing to pay assessed fines, they were sentenced to five days in District Jail, where they participated in a hunger strike to protest the administration's refusal to treat them as political prisoners. For this dedication, Gertrude Murphy won the "prison pin." The February 1920 edition of The Suffragist lists 106 women, including Murphy, who spent time in jail as a result of their activism on behalf of women’s suffrage. These 106 women were awarded a prison pin as an "emblem of the sacrifice of individual liberty for the liberty of all women."

Selected Sources:

Gertrude Murphy appears in an appendix of suffrage prisoners in Doris Stevens’s Jailed for Freedom (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920), and her name is listed among the prison pin awardees in the February 1920 edition of The Suffragist (volume VIII, no. 1). Her story as detailed above can be found in Inez Hayes Irwin’s The Story of the Women’s Party (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1921), with dates corrected through corroboration with contemporary Washington, D.C., newspapers. Other sources include "Guilty Of—?" The Suffragist VII, no. 1 (1919): 4; "Preserving the Dignity of the Court," The Suffragist VII, no. 53 (1919): 10-11; The Minneapolis Journal; The Washington Herald; and The Willmar Tribune.

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