Northampton Poet Laureate Leslea Newman organized an Inauguration Day poetry reading this past Tuesday, which you can read about on the MassLive website. My friend Ellen LaFleche has given me permission to reprint her poem from the event, in which she revisits an episode in America’s civil rights history that deserves greater public awareness.
Truth in the Booth
Eight Thousand Women Disrupt the Festivities by Demanding the Right to Suffrage
The women who wanted to vote
picketed Woodrow’s big
white house. Woodrow and his Senators
said no, and no again,
though every day on horseback
Woodrow politely tipped his hat
at that gaggle of girls who wanted to vote.
The women marched. Year after year
thick skirts scraping the dirt,
corsets pressing their ribs like murdering fingers.
Until a world war loomed.
Woodrow had a dead arch-duke on his hands.
Soldiers choking on mustard gas.
He lost patience with the women
who wanted to vote.
Woodrow sent them to prison.
The women were manacled at the ankles,
hands bound behind their backs like a procession of witches.
You know the story:
rats, the damp, the dungeon blackness.
Each woman alone in her cell.
Putrid food, water scummy with typhus.
One of the women began to knock. Alice Paul.
The knocking spread, cell wall to cell wall,
fists scraping against brick,
women raising their voices with their fists.
The women went on strike.
For weeks they starved.
Their hips sank. Their tongues rumbled with hunger
in their skulls.
Then, the forced feeding. The tube down the throat.
The warden poured in nutrients until the women choked.
They gagged like the mustard-gassed soldiers.
Still they knocked,
hands fisted, bloody knuckles
insisting on justice.
The women knocked. They starved.
They knocked. They knocked and they knocked
and they knocked.
Still, Woodrow and his Senators said no to the vote.
Women who wanted to vote
started a fire in a cremation urn,
a kind of perpetual White House flame.
When Woodrow gave a speech,
the women burned his words to ash.
The women starved. They knocked. They burned
Woodrow’s words. They knocked and they knocked
and they knocked.
Until seven years after Inauguration,
Woodrow and his Senators
said yes to suffrage.
Election Day, 2008.
I speak my truth in the booth.
One woman, one vote for Obama.
This vote is for the women who hungered,
for the women who burned Woodrow’s words,
for the women who suffered for suffrage.
This vote for Barack
is for the women who starved themselves,
for the women who knocked and knocked and knocked.