Women “Politicals” (Not) in the News

We rarely hear about the prisoners of Abu Ghraib and Bagram and Guantanamo. And what we generally hear is unlikely to confront US culpability for the full horrors experienced by the prisoners of American wars of empire and occupation. And what of American political prisoners at home? The ever-suspect Muslims, the anti-war and anti-globalization and pro-environmentalists—the aging Black Panthers and Weather Underground and Native-American activists—some of them tortured, kept in solitary confinement for years.1 How many of us know the long history of political prisoners in America, of whom we weren’t, by definition, supposed to have—this land of the free. Many of those political prisoners have been, and continue to be, women. Femaleness does not protect a woman from being considered an enemy of the state, in fact, as “unnatural” women, perhaps the opposite.

Women have been enthusiastic activists since this country’s earliest days. They’ve become political prisoners after joining movements which have been anti-capitalist—as labor organizers, socialists and anarchists, running afoul of pro-business/ corporate/government authorities; anti-patriarchal—critics of a male-dominated/militarist society; anti-white supremacy—black civil rights activists and revolutionaries, or Native-American or Puerto Rican nationalists; or anti-imperialist/anti-war—pacifists or protesters of American empire, from WWI to Viet Nam, to Iraq/Afghanistan.

A number of these “unnatural” female activists have been in the news, at least in the “alternative” news, this summer. They are: Lolita Lebron, Marilyn Buck, Lynne Stewart, and Aafia Siddiqui. The first two women have recently died, and the last two have been re-sentenced (Stewart), or are awaiting sentence (Siddiqui). They represent different time periods and eras of American dissent and repression.

Lolita Lebron and Marilyn Buck were anti-white supremacy/anti-imperialist activists from the 1950s-80s. Lolita Lebron, who was a Puerto Rican nationalist, died on August 1st at the age of 90. From the 60s through the 80s, in a serious, comprehensive and all-encompassing attempt at revolution, women participated in groups that favored radical action—even armed resistance—against what they saw as an oppressive American state. Puerto Ricans have been fighting US control since the American takeover in 1898. An uprising in the 1950s was followed by martial law, and Puerto Rican Independistas took the struggle to America. In March of 1954 Lolita Lebron wanted to dramatically tell the world that Puerto Rico was “a U.S. colony.” Shouting “Viva Puerto Rican libre!” she led a small group which opened fire in the House of Representatives, firing 30 shots and wounding five Congressmen. She said she had not intended to kill anyone. But she was not sorry for the “act of freedom for my country.”2 Lebron got life in prison, but was pardoned by President Carter in 1979 and returned to Puerto Rico, where she continued in the struggle versus US colonialism. She was arrested at age 81 for protesting the American bombing range at Vieques. Fellow women Puerto Rican nationalists have also received harsh jail sentences. After conviction of involvement in a movement-led Connecticut robbery in 1983, Alejandrina Torres was raped in prison and then placed in solitary at Lexington prison in Kentucky.3

Dovetailing with Lebron’s jail time, was that of a woman who also spent a very long time in prison: Marilyn Buck. She died of cancer, an illness very much exacerbated by her incarceration, at age 62 just recently, right after her she finally secured release. Marilyn Buck was an activist in the intense politically-charged atmosphere of the 60s and 70s, part of the huge movement challenging the American system: the capitalist state and white supremacy. Such activists were using words and ideas that, according to historian Dan Berger, “the state deemed too powerful to let slide as so much free speech.”4 The full force of the state came down on groups like the Black Panthers and Weather Underground, advocates of armed struggle against what they saw as a racist colonial power. Marilyn Buck protested against the Viet Nam war, racism, brought “women’s lib” to the SDS, was pro-Palestinian, anti-Shah (of Iran) and pro-Native-American, Mexican-American, and Black Panther.5

In 1973 Buck was arrested for securing two boxes of bullets for, and being associated with, the Black Panthers. She got 10 years. After three parole attempts were rejected she escaped in 1977. In 1985 she was recaptured, accused of helping prisoner Assata Shakur escape, and for being part of the Weather Underground’s “Resistance Conspiracy”—which purportedly planned several governmental bombings in the East. For that, she got 80 years in a California prison, where she wrote prize-winning poetry and analytic articles on the psychology of female repression. She argued that women political prisoners have bad experiences unique to them since women “already endure both social and cultural oppression and repression from childhood on … women are vulnerable to even deeper humiliation and degradation.”6 Considered a “terrorist,” she was put in solitary and held incommunicado after 9/11. In a sentiment with which Lebron would have agreed, Buck said she did not want to be a forgotten woman prisoner but a “comrade in an ongoing struggle versus imperialism, oppression and exploitation.”7

Lynne Stewart and Aafia Siddiqui, who were also arguably victims of white supremacy and imperialism, have both felt the enormous consequences of the anti-“terrorist”/anti-Muslim era, beginning with the 9/11 bombings. Stewart’s case actually pre-dates the 2001 bombings in the US—although she was convicted under a Patriot Act that some argue should not have been applied to her by Attorney General Ashcroft; while Siddiqui was on a watchlist created by that same AG. The “war on terror” hysteria has resulted in rapid and profound changes for political and civil rights in this country. One immediate occurrence has been a concentration of power in the executive, making the president the “Decider” in matters of war, peace and the law. Bush, and now Obama have used the law in a politicized Justice Department, enforcing laws like the Patriot Act, which has led to the arrest of thousands of innocent people without charges or legal representation, and has also been used to punish lawyers who represent the accused “terrorists.” Lawyer Lynne Stewart was recently re-sentenced after her Patriot Act conviction.

In the wake of the terror hysteria, 69-year-old Stewart became a political prisoner in January, for trying to defend her client, Sheikh Abdel Rahman, convicted for a 1996 New York City terror plot. Technically, she was charged for providing material support, through a press conference, to her client’s intended “terrorist conspiracy.” It’s questionable that she should have been tried under a Patriot Act passed in 2001. Her surveillance started in 2000, and the provision regarding “special administration measures” severely limiting the ability of the accused to communicate with the outside world, probably shouldn’t apply to lawyer-client communication. Disbarred, disgraced, and sentenced to 28 months, in spite of having breast cancer, colleagues say she was really jailed for being a long-time zealous advocate for Black Panthers and Weather Underground “bombers.” Stewart thinks she was being made an example to deter other lawyers, male or female, from defending “controversial figures and causes.”8

In her re-sentencing trial of July 15th, this is even more apparent. As this country accepts greater infringements on civil liberties, lawyers, especially those with “progressive” political beliefs9 are among the first to feel the effects. Stewart’s sentence was increased nearly five times, to 10 years. Her judge, John Koeltl, on re-considering her sentence, said she lied in court, abused her position as lawyer, and showed “no remorse.” Stewart talked about how prison had “diminished” her… she was “losing pieces” of her personality.10 As she has also said: “The police state has now arrived.”11

“Police state” may sound extreme, but maybe not. Political prisoner Laura Whitehorn has argued that torture is not new in the US, even of women, but now it is an “integral part of U.S. imperialism, with white supremacy as a fundamental element”—torture as a “weapon of domination.”12 So when Pakistani-born neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, 37, who studied and worked in America for years, was convicted of trying to kill American military officers and FBI agents, it’s not surprising that her bizarre and murky story includes her torture at the hands of her American captors. Siddiqui, after a strange, unsettling trial in New York City in January, was found guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced, after a recent postponement, on September 23rd. Watched in the early 2000s because of her Muslim activism, she disappeared in Pakistan in 2003, only to re-appear in Afghanistan in 2008, disoriented and carrying plans to blow up New York buildings.13

Many believe she was kidnapped by the Americans in 2003, with her three children; raped, tortured, with one of her children dying, one missing, and one now with her sister. British journalist Yvonne Ridley has written that Siddiqui and other women have been, and are, at Bagram and other US torture prisons. There is very shaky evidence of her attack on soldiers with an M4 assault rifle that was somehow left unattended. But she was the only one who got shot, grievously, in the stomach. “Lady al Qaeda” (so-named by the NY Daily News ) was convicted in January. Her mind seemed to wander. She was forced by the judge to come to the court every day, which meant undergoing daily strip searches, just continuing her horrors. Although human rights groups say she is no extremist, in her testimony, Siddiqui insists she was held in a secret prison by the Americans.14 Siddiqui was supposedly tried for assault, not terrorism, but the government lawyers constantly told the jury she was a terrorist. Solid evidence was never presented that she was an assaulter or a terrorist. During her trial, witnesses described Siddiqui as a “completely broken human being.”15

We can celebrate woman’s suffrage and work for an ERA, but we have to remember the underside, the dark side, of women and politics in this country. For women who are politicals, for Lebron and Buck, for Stewart and Siddiqui, life in jail can be horrible in ways peculiar to women. Historian Dylan Rodriguez writes of a “gendered degradation” for political women in prison, through “profound, discrete acts of violent male authority.”16 Women, traditionally supposed to be docile and relatively non-political wives and mothers, have to suffer for not only being anti-imperialist or anti-white supremacist, but for being “unnatural females.”

  1. See James Ridgeway’s site. []
  2. Democracynow.com, August 2, 2010. []
  3. See Matt Meyer, ed., Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners, 2008, 15; Joy James, ed., Warfare in the American Homeland: Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy, 2007, 166. []
  4. In Meyer, “The Real Dragon,” 4. []
  5. Meyer, 771-772. []
  6. James, 238. []
  7. Meyer, 772. []
  8. Meyer, 680, 801; Marjorie Cohn, Commondreams.com, November 25, 2009. []
  9. Meyer, 682. []
  10. Democracynow.com, July 16, 2010. []
  11. Stewart, “Afterword,” 753, in Meyer. []
  12. James, 273-274. []
  13. Cageprisoners.com, February 1, 2010; Draafia.org, December 16, 2008. []
  14. Petra Bartosiewicz, Time, January 8, 2010. []
  15. Siddiqui representative Tina Foster in Chris Hedges, “The Terror-Industrial Complex,” truthdig.com, February 8, 2010. []
  16. Rodriguez, Forced Passage: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime, 2006, 195-195. []

Linda Ford is historian and sometime adjunct professor, and is the author of Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman’s Party, 1991. She is currently working on a book about the history of women political prisoners in America. She can be reached at: gluntsi@morrisville.edu. Read other articles by Linda.

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  1. Deadbeat said on September 2nd, 2010 at 12:19am #

    I’m sorry no one commented on this topic. However one thing that has been suppressed were/are the women prisoners from Abu Graib. We’ve seen pictures of what the U.S. did to the Iraqi men. We can only imagine the condition and brutality that happened upon Iraqi women.