Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920
Biography of Nellie Barnes, 1860-1950
By Dawn Mitchell, reporter, Indianapolis Star
Originally published November 17, 2017 as "Indianapolis suffragette faced harsh treatment at notorious prison workhouse." Reprinted here with permission of the author.
Indianapolis suffragette faced harsh treatment at notorious prison workhouse
One hundred years ago Nellie Barnes wanted her voice to be heard. So, she took her place, banner in hand, and joined other suffragettes along the gates of the White House on Nov. 10, 1917. While she was passionate about the cause, she was discouraged by the methods used to get the point across.
The National Woman's Party, of which Barnes was the state membership chairman, was the radical arm of the suffrage movement. The party urged its members to picket the White House in an attempt to convince president Woodrow Wilson to pressure the Democratic senators to vote in favor of a constitutional suffrage amendment.
As the United States entered World War I, police began arresting the picketers and penalties for protesting were imprisonment.
Despite the threat of arrest, women kept traveling to Washington to be heard.
Barnes of Indianapolis joined fellow Hoosiers Mrs. Horace Stilwell of Anderson and Mrs. A.H. Beardsley of Elkhart in the picket lines. She told The Indianapolis Star, "I may land in jail, but it will be to serve a good cause, so I am willing to take the risk, I shall not seek bail nor implore the aid of friends."
Barnes discussed the prospect of being arrested, "If a policeman comes after me I'll just throw up my hands and say take me for I won't fight back," she said and add she had no intention of going on a hunger strike. "I'll eat the pork and cabbage or whatever the jail meal offers if I am arrested," said Mrs. Barnes, "If we are to continue our fight we must have strength and to have strength we must eat. No indeed, no hunger strike for mine."
Nellie Barnes was not arrested not long after she started picketing, along with forty-one banner bearers and hauled in a police wagon while a crowd jeered and heckled the women arrested. They were released on $25 bail.
After her arrest, Barnes received a letter from her husband Charles. "Now, Nellie, I glory in your spunk and courage, knowing as I do that you are working for a grand cause," wrote Mr. Barnes. "While I was not greatly shocked at the new I had hoped it would be otherwise. But if you get in jail be pleasant and courteous to the officials of the institution."
Charles Barnes was supportive of the suffrage movement, "As I see it, we must co-operate in order to get a steady and lasting peace with democracy for the world and how can we have democracy with the better half disfranchised? So you may tell your co-workers if you like, that you know of one man in your city who is back of them in the work and will do all he can in his humble capacity to comfort those at the front."
Days later, Barnes returned to the White House pickets. The scene with antagonists was more confrontational and Barnes had her banner snatched from her hands.
Barnes was charged with obstructing traffic and committed to the notorious federal workhouse at Occoquan, Virginia twenty-six miles from Washington. Women had no communication with family, many suffering from poor treatment, malnutrition and some chained to the prison walls. The women considered themselves political prisoners and organized hunger strikes which led to force-feeding by prison guards.
After spending four days in the workhouse Barnes said, "I never dreamed that at 57 years of age I could learn so much in such a short time."
Upon her return home, Barnes noted her introduction to the methods of the Women's Party were aggressive and felt the militant practice of picketing, hunger striking, defiance of courts and general ugliness were a deterrent to the women's cause for suffrage. Barnes advocated "silent picketing" as a more useful tool in the fight.
Despite the hardships, she considered her time was well spent.
"My heart is in the cause of suffrage and I am willing even to neglect my home duties for a time to do something for the sake of political liberty for the whole country."
The events at Occoquan from July to December 1917, stirred the nation to push for women's rights and hastened the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Nellie Barnes died in 1950 at the age of 90.