Biographical Database of Militant Woman Suffragists, 1913-1920

Biography of Margaret Wood Kessler, 1880-?

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By Amelia Koford, Texas Lutheran University

Margaret Wood Kessler was a socialist suffragist who was arrested for picketing the White House in September 1917. She was born Margaret Wood in Kansas around 1880; her mother was Frances S. Wood. She grew up in Denver, where her father worked as a physician. She attended Denver University. She married Walter Kessler on January 7, 1903 and had one daughter, Martha Isabella Kessler, on December 5, 1903. According to the federal manuscript census, Walter was employed as a store or office clerk in Denver in 1910 and 1920.

By the time she reached her mid-30s, Kessler was a hospital fundraiser, vice-president of the Women's Progressive Club of Colorado, and had run for office in the Progressive party. According to Census records, she also worked as an electrical practitioner and a clerk. In 1914, Kessler joined the Congressional Union. Doris Stevens introduced her in the pages of The Suffragist, writing that Kessler was "long known for her social and philanthropic work in Colorado."

In 1915, Kessler wrote to Alice Paul volunteering to direct the Colorado campaign of the Congressional Union (CU) after Ruth Noyes vacated the position. Paul was hesitant to accept Kessler as Colorado chairman, writing to Lucy Burns that they "needed a more influential name." During this period, Paul's correspondents described Kessler as having strong ties to the labor movement and speaking openly against the evils of capital. One Congressional Union officer, Caroline Spencer, described Kessler as "a frail little body, all spirit and fire -- a dauntless lover of liberty and justice." Paul asked Kessler to leave office, causing some pushback from Congressional Union members who believed Paul was being unfair due to Kessler's pro-labor views. Although no longer the Colorado chairman, Kessler stayed in the CU (later National Woman's Party) as a member.

In 1917, Kessler traveled from her home in Denver to join the National Woman's Party pickets. Her departure for Washington, DC in mid-September and return on Denver in early November were both covered by Colorado newspapers. She went to the White House gates on Monday, September 24, 2017 (often reported in secondary sources as September 22) along with three other suffragists: Peggy Baird Johns of St. Louis, Ernestine Hara of New York, and Hilda Blumberg of New York. The four carried a twelve-foot banner with a long quotation from President Wilson in which he defended public action and political resistance. This quotation was meant to convey the hypocrisy of the government's intolerance of the suffragists' nonviolent picketing. It was the first time this particular quotation had been used on a National Woman's Party banner, although not the first time a banner had featured Wilson's own words. The banner read:

 

President Wilson, what did you mean when you said:
We have seen a good many singular things happen recently. We have been told it is unpatriotic to criticise public action. Well, if it is, then there is a deep disgrace resting upon the origin of this nation. This nation originated in the sharpest sort of criticism of public policy. We originated, to put it in the vernacular, in a kick, and if it be unpatriotic to kick, why then the grown man is unlike the child. We have forgotten the very principle of our origin if we have forgotten how to object, how to resist, how to agitate, how to pull down and build up, even to the extent of revolutionary practices, if it be necessary to readjust matters. I have forgotten my history if that be not true history.

 

Two police officers confiscated the banner shortly after the picketers unfurled it, then waited a few minutes for a small crowd to gather before placing the women under arrest. Suffragist Mrs. Howard Gould bailed the four women out of jail.

The day after their arrest, the four women were brought to court and sentenced to 30 days in the Occoquan Workhouse for obstructing traffic. Like previous picketers, they refused to pay the fine that would have exempted them from the sentence. The arrest and sentence were reported in newspapers all over the country.

Kessler served 30 days in the Occoquan workhouse, enduring miserable conditions. In a letter to Alice Paul, Kessler's husband worried that prison would endanger her life, since her health had always been fragile. Kessler and her fellow imprisoned picketers signed a petition asserting political prisoner status (as per usual for jailed NWP pickets) and requesting writing materials, exemption from prison work, and access to legal representation. The letter was smuggled to supporters and delivered to District commissioners, but it went unanswered. Kessler and other women refused to work. All the Occoquan suffrage prisoners were later transferred to the District jail, where Kessler served the last 10 days of her sentence.

Upon her transfer, she was questioned by Occoquan superintendent Raymond Whittaker. His statements to her reflected the hostility that would culminate in the "night of terror" the following month. He stated, "We are going to stop this picketing if it costs the lives of some of your women and it will cost the lives of some of these women, but we are going to stop it." Kessler replied, "Mr. Whittaker, it is a great price to pay for liberty." He reiterated: "But that is what we are going to do anyway." She responded: "Our women will be able to pay that price."

The National Woman's Party held a reception for the released picketers on October 24, where Kessler addressed the crowd:

"I want to go back to the women voters of the West. I want to tell them what their unenfranchised sisters are enduring for the sake of political liberty, and for the sake of the deep patriotism that demands democracy at home. I want to appeal to them to heed and to help in this bitter struggle. Women have never appealed to women in vain. The women of the West will hear, and rise, and act."

Unfortunately, little is known about Kessler's life after she returned to Denver. Several of her fellow September picketers took part in the November protests against Alice Paul's imprisonment, but Kessler was no longer in Washington at that time. Her date of death is not known. Her daughter Martha later lived in California. The failure to find Margaret, Walter or Martha anywhere in the 1930 census suggests that Margaret may have died in the 1920s.

Sources

1910 and 1920 federal manuscript censuses of Denver, accessed through HeritageQuest Online.

Affidavit of Margaret Wood Kessler (Oct. 20, 1917). Provided by National Woman's Party (NWP) collection at the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument. Also available in Reel 50 of National Woman's Party Papers.

Ford, Linda. "Alice Paul and the Politics of Nonviolent Protest." In Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Ford, Linda. Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman's Party, 1912-1920 (Lanham, Md: University Press of America, 1991).

"4 More ‘Suffs' Land in Lockup: Display of Banners at the White House Lasts Just Four Minutes." Washington Herald, September 25, 1917.

Irwin, Inez Haynes. The Story of the Woman's Party (New York: Harcourt, 1921).

"Militants' Defense Fails: Four Sentenced Despite Plea that Man-Made Laws Don't Apply." Washington Post, September 26, 1917.

"News from the Field." The Suffragist 2, no. 41 (1914): 5-8.

"The President's 'Seditious' Banner." The Suffragist 5, no. 88 (1917): 5.

"Spirit to Carry On." The Suffragist 5, no. 93 (1917): 5.

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