Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920
Biography of Elsie (Elsa) Unterman (Birth/Death dates Unknown)
By Christine R. Valeriann
Principal at Marcom360 Consulting and Marketing Adjunct Instructor at Johns Hopkins University, Towson University, University of Baltimore
Jailed suffragist, social worker, journalist
Elsie Unterman was one of the suffragists jailed during the campaign to win the right to vote for women in the United States. No birth or death records have been confirmed for this social worker from Chicago, Illinois. However, there is limited documentation about her activism and her marriage to Floyd Cleveland Ramp on December 21, 1914, which ended in divorce.
According to The Inter Ocean, at a local meeting of women activists condemning the methods and results of Chicago Lieutenant Governor Barratt O'Hara's vice commission in 1913, "Miss Elsa Unterman ... referred to the O'Hara investigation as a ‘hip-hurrah,' and told those who treat woman suffrage as a joke that ‘it isn't half as much a joke as the investigation of this senatorial commission.'" While the O’Hara Commission’s work ultimately resulted in the minimum wage bill, suffragists were outraged by the O'Hara Commission's conclusion that there was a connection between low wages for women and vice, branding “every working girl who is receiving less than $8 a week” as an actual or potential prostitute.
As a journalist, her writings appeared in such left-wing journals as The Western Comrade and The Liberator. She was also associated with the Workers Party of America. It is not surprising then that in January 1919, Unterman took time off from work to travel to Washington, D.C. to join the suffragists picketing the White House. The “watchfires for freedom” demonstrations were kindled by the National Woman's Party on New Year's Day to bring attention to the need for passage of the Susan B. Anthony (19th) Amendment. Despite rain and snow, suffragists kept the small fires burning, immediately rebuilding and rekindling them after the fires were snuffed out by police or angry onlookers from the crowds that gathered. The demonstrators were repeatedly jailed and released on bail, only to return to the watchfires, and occasionally were physically attacked by the crowds and even the police. The watchfires were kept burning continually through February 9, culminating with the President being burned in effigy two days before the vote on the Amendment was scheduled.
On January 25, Unterman attended the court hearing in support of the suffragists arrested the previous day for feeding the flames in front of the White House. The septuagenarian on trial, Mrs. Mary Nolan, gave such an impassioned statement on freedom for women that a “great storm” of applause erupted in the courtroom. The judge was furious at the disruption. Unterman was one of 13 supporters tried for contempt of court and sentenced to forty-eight hours in jail for applauding. She was released from jail on January 27 and promptly arrested the same day for applauding her sister suffragists in court at another trial, and once again, sentenced to forty-eight hours in jail.
Elsie Unterman is listed as one of the one hundred sixty-six suffragists who served jail terms and were decorated for their distinguished service in 1920. She was awarded the “prison pin” for her “sacrifice of individual liberty for the liberty of all women.”
Unterman's decoration for service is documented in the archives of The Suffragist (The Gerritsen Collection of Aletta H. Jacobs). Her arrests are reported in Jailed for Freedom and The Story of Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party. Her comments and contemporary sentiments about the O'Hara commission are documented in the local newspapers, Chicago Tribune, The Day Book, and The Inter Ocean. Unterman's marriage is referenced in the Catalogue of Manuscripts in the University of Oregon Library, compiled by Martin Schmitt (The e-ASIA Digital Library).
Elsa Unterman, “When Girls Go on Strike,” The Western Comrade (November 1913), 258-59. Online at https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/westerncomrade/1311-westerncomrade-v1-n08.pdf.
Elsa Unterman, "The Action That Wins," The Western Comrade (April 1914), 407.
http://www.marxisthistory.org/subject/usa/eam/year1914downloads.html. Elsa Unterman, “Less Than Equal, A Story,” The Liberator I:8 (October 1918), 13.
“Jail Door Pin, 1917” aka “Prison Pin”
Photo Credit: Collection, National Woman's Party (Catalog Number 1917.006)
Description: Jail Door pin ... given to suffragists who were jailed for picketing the White House. This pin was originally owned by Betsy Graves Reyneau, who was among a group of 16 women arrested for picketing the White House on July 14, 1917, and who were jailed for four days. The pin was designed by Alice Paul, based on the Holloway Broach given to British women who had been imprisoned.