In The Eye of the Beholder: USA History of Imprisoning Women Politicals

Part One of review and discussion of Linda G. Ford's Women Politicals in America: Jailed Dissenters from Mother Jones to Lynne Stewart

I was born a protester … My mother had to go to the school a lot and talk to the principal.

— Dorli Rainey (In conversation with author Paul Haeder)

I am being jailed because I have advocated change for equality, justice, and peace. … I stand where thousands of abolitionists, escaped slaves, workers and political activists have stood for demanding justice, for refusing to either quietly bear the biting lash of domination or to stand by silently as others bear the same lash.

— Marilyn Buck, at her 1990 sentencing (epigram in Linda Ford’s book, Women Politicals in America)

Personal Truth

Personal experience is like the yeast in good sour dough bread – lifts truth to the heavens. It wasn’t just a shame to see Dorli Rainey, 80-year-old activist, sprayed with corrosive eye-nose-lung chemicals by the bicycling Seattle Police Department during a peaceful Occupy Seattle rally. That was November 16, 2011.  We were all kettled in and sprayed by the fascist police force, all warm and fuzzy looking in their spandex bike shorts and on black Trek mountain bikes.

Seattle is a libertarian town, a city of racist and Nazi-loving cops and officers that kill Blacks, Latino/a citizens and Native Americans. The images of Dorli with milk splashed on her face being helped out of the crowd that hit the Associated Press headlines didn’t change the patriarchal and thuggish leaders of the Emerald City.

The legacy of Rachel Carson and her work on environmental fascism by the purveyors of the chemical industrial war complex also was deep in my soul after I read Silent Spring at the impressionable age of 15.

Luckily, when I was a first-year high school student, one of my English teachers turned me onto the National Farm Workers Association and Dolores Huerta’s role in leading with Cesar Chavez grape and lettuce boycotts. Ms Courtney was instrumental in inculcating my interest in women heroes in history, highlighting the work of both Mother Jones and Angela Davis.

A legacy of women activists in the streets and my own participation with their causes goes back when I was in my third year of high school, protesting the invaders trying to block people from receiving services from Planned Parenthood in Tucson. I was alongside women who demanded their right to reproductive medicine facing down angry men and women protected by a phalanx of Tucson Police Department goons.

A year later I was covering the police beat for the Arizona Daily Wildcat, a reporting job that put me face to face with the rape culture – most of the stories I covered involved the sexual assaults on and around campus and then throughout the metropolitan area. Four to eighty (4-2-80) was the figure I had emblazoned in my mind – a four year old girl raped by three men in a drug house and an eighty-year-old artist using a walker raped by what the fascist cops dubbed the “Apologetic Rapist.” All ages, all walks of life, all races, that’s what I had come to know as the rape culture engulfing me.

I wrote about judges who sided with the alleged rapists, double raping the sexually assaulted by admonishing her for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, for wearing provocative clothes, for playing drinking games with young healthy men – “what did you expect would happen?” I learned early on that my words as a journalist were nothing compared to a baseball to the heads of the perpetrators, both the violent sexual assaulters and the DA’s, and judges, coaches, cops and colonized public.

I was told flat out that I was no longer a protected member of my own gender when I was accused of  “siding with the radical fems castrating men” as I covered stories on Take Back the Night and protests against my campus sweeping under the rug (university politics then and now) of star athletes (male) leveled with rape charges that “mysteriously disappeared.”

I fought tooth and nail around the various newsrooms I worked in, since I was both a hard left socialist and communist in name. I blasted the American Police state (with the full support and logistics of the city government) when they spearheaded and carried out an illegal and unconstitutional military assault against African Americans, while my news reporter brothers and sisters defended the cops and the bureaucrats. I called some of the defendants “the brave women in Philadelphia who had the guts to defend home and family and who witnessed their loved ones firebomb murdered.” I was lambasted by both male and female editors while Debbie Sims and Janine and Janet Africa of the MOVE 9 ended up with 100-year sentences with no chance of parole because a cop was killed by friendly fire. They were political prisoners of a vicious killing machine, propped up by a schizophrenic rule of law pistol in one hand and a machine gun of empty constitutional rights in another hand. The three were locked up in a state correctional (sic) institution starting in 1978, although Debbie was released in June 2018.

Add to the many heroes of the women political prison class others less militant, like Lois Gibbs and other “housewives and mothers” fighting the patriarchal death goo of Love Canal’s Hooker Chemical Co that dumped 21,800 tons of industrial hazardous waste from 1942 to 1953 that ended up being under a Niagara Falls middle class housing development of death. Birth defects, developmental disabilities, and tortuous death.

Free Speech on the Line – Early Beginnings of Fascism in a Stolen Country

The United States has imprisoned women dissidents from the beginning, even as a colony. The intolerance of dissent, of questioning the established order, began then and it has continued.

It is time to recognize, as America slides toward becoming an autocratic fascist state, that we have, and always have had, political prisoners. We also have and always have had, those who have dissented, who have fought injustice, inequality, racism, imperialism and sexism. Many of these dissenters are, and have been, women.

— Linda Ford, Women Politicals

Getting through Linda Ford’s Women Politicals in America: Jailed Dissenters from Mother Jones to Lynne Stewart (2018) is both a joy and an unsettling experience. Bearing witness to the incredible depth of courage and conviction of women fighters for justice — and in most cases, these are female soldiers against American empire, fighting military and environmental wars, muckraking against capitalism, battling racism, and charging against sexism, and exposing the cancer of capitalism under a patriarchy, which in the end defines capitalism at its core — forces the reader to DO something with the information and terrible reality of this insane and misogynistic fascism.

An American colony seeded by degenerates, a coven of thieving, fearing, Indian-killing, superstitious and authoritarian whites was bound to start with men trying to whip and stockade their own brand of sadistic order into the society that saw black and white – damned or saved – as the defining philosophy in their Indian hating, woman sniping, slave owning selves!

Burning witches as heretics was the precursor of today, even as I pen this when the spineless Birmingham Civil Rights Institute withdrew its Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award to Angela Davis because of the apartheid forces of Zionism and Israel-too-genocidal/big-to-jail lunatics putting pressure on that civil rights (sic) group to follow lock step the Zionist Lies are Truth shit. Linda Ford talks about Black Panther Angela Davis as one political prisoner of note in her book, and the irony is the Hillary Clinton-supporting Davis, tenured faculty that she is, is back in the white patriarchy gun sights.

This witch-burning continues today, against the accusers of Kavanaugh or Weinstein or any woman going against any number of men in power, from Trump to Epstein, from Charlie Rose to Bill Clinton. Here, from Henry Miller, The Crucible, a telling reminder of what Western White Patriarchy has unleashed in the Americas:  

When it is recalled that until the Christian era the underworld was never regarded as a hostile area, that all gods were useful and essentially friendly to man despite occasional lapses when we see the steady methodical inculcation into humanity of the idea of man’s worthlessness – until redeemed – the necessity of the Devil may become evident as a weapon, a weapon designed and used time and time again in every age to whip men into a surrender to a particular church or church state.

The McCarthy Era and loyalty oaths go way back. Anne Hutchinson became a major threat to the authority of Governor John Winthrop in the 1630’s. Linda Ford starts her book looking at Anne who was “upholding an ideal of self-government and liberty. Anne Hutchinson may have been acceptable as a female prophet, but she went well beyond acceptable political/social norms and religious creed, when she taught her own beliefs in her own meetings.”

Jailed, punished, banished. Those three words rip through the historical record as Linda Ford advances through the epochs and decades to cogently look at the harsh, tortuous and illegal nature of punishing women dissenters. “Early women Travelling Preachers had been whipped through towns for 80-mile stretches, dragged behind wagons, and left in the snowy countryside to fend for themselves.” Mary Dyer, supporter of Hutchinson, was hanged in Boston in 1660.

Most telling in Ford’s book is how well she personalizes the heroines and draws a strong point of view from each of the women’s “selves” she features, large or small, in this timely and powerful book. Words of the condemned (and many times murdered) prove to be powerful in the hands of this gifted writer, Linda Ford:

You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm. No further do I esteem of any mortal man. I fear none but the great Jehovah which hath foretold me of these things, and I do verily believe that he will deliver me out of your hands . . . . And see!This scripture fulfilled this day in mine eyes, therefore take heed what ye goe about to do unto me …  for I know that or this ye goe about to do to me, God will ruine you and your posterity, and this whole state.

— Anne Hutchinson, to the Massachusetts General Court, 1637

This is in Ford’s prologue, and then we get caught in her riptide of narratives in thirteen more sections, as the headwinds of those early days of dissent reverberate throughout Ford’s writing. She writes about the hard row to hoe being not just a dissenter in this country, but a woman dissenter, and when one is a woman of color dissenter, both barrels of the fascist shotguns come blazing against the respective heroes.

They are heroes, no doubt about it, and this book is timely, one for the ages and one that all young women should read with their sisters, aunts, mothers and, of course, their male advocates.

The author alludes to her previous work, Iron-Jawed Angels,  covering the militant suffragists protesting the patriarchal Wilson government from 1912 to 1919:

I found their jail experience as political prisoners dramatic, romantic, horrifying . . . and kind of quaint. But working on this book, which takes women politicals through the present, through the 1980’s and 1990’s to 2018, suddenly it is not so romantic and quaint. Suddenly it is extreme, scary, appalling and way too real.

What’s also relevant about her work that should be the millionth teachable moment for this consumerist, capitalist, predatory loan-bearing, infantile society is the power of women to not only dissent and protest, but to put their lives on the line in this country for the ideals of social justice of a real kind, where freedom and equality and anti-war/anti-imperialism cut to the heart of their struggle.

The end of slavery, the end of chattel laws, the end of misogyny, the end of land-culture-ecosystems theft, and the end of capitalism are worthy battles this book explores through the lives and voices of political women prisoners.

Ironically, environmental warriors (deemed terrorists by the police state) now represent the backbone of Mother Earth protectors, and women are at the forefront of the battles to protect water, air, land and farming rights. We know about earth protectors in other countries being murdered: Berta Caceres murdered in 2016 after resisting the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam in Honduras. Her daughter, Laura, stated:

We are defenders of life. We are willing to do anything to allow life to continue. We don’t want to lose our lies and lose our mamas and families. But we assume that risk. If they can murder someone with high recognition like me mother Berta, then they can murder anyone.

Ford takes us to Indian country from the beginning of the country’s concerted genocide and overt hatred of both men and women of every tribe, up to the current struggles, to include the Standing Rock campaign, and the horrific, anti-democratic and abusive FBI and police protection of the millionaires and billionaires, in the form of Dakota Access Pipeline Company: A pro-business/big energy thuggery “forcing a pipeline carrying explosive Bakken crude oil through Native-American lands without tribal consultation or consent. There have been no environmental reviews, and it’s clear to dissidents that there is no respect for rights of tribal governments or tribal cultural resources and vital natural resources,” Ford writes.

Ford traverses much spiritual, legal, historical and narrative territory in her chapters, from Mother Jones and Lucy Parsons (1870-1920), to Lucy Burns and her militant suffragist stance; to the anti-war/anti-capitalistic imperialism of Emma Goldman, to the fascism of Japanese internment through a woman hero, Mitsuye Endo; into the communist struggle with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Ethel Rosenburg and deeply into Assanta Shakur’s struggles and other warrior women of the anti-white supremacy/black liberation movement versus the FBI’s COINTELPRO; into the struggle of Mary Brave Bird and Alejandrina Torres against US colonialism; into the period of 1960-1990 with Feminist Barbara Demin and anti-nuclear activist Anne Montgomery; into the armed struggle by “defiant revolutionaries” Laura Whitehorn and Susan Rosenberg; into 1990 to the present with the disappearance, torture and destruction of Aafia Siddiqui, anti-imperialist dissenters, Muslim women and whistleblowers; into the current police state cracking down on women anti-capitalist/racist dissenters and on Human Rights Lawyer Lynne  Stewart; through the 1990s to the current state of the amped up police state with the crackdown on the Black and Occupy Movements.

The struggle and defiance and the powerful resistance of women have gone unreported, or misreported, in this United States of Amnesia as Gore Vidal pegged this country; and as Ford states in her opening, her male colleague was completely unaware of most of the history of deeply committed women, who de facto become political prisoners because of their social and environmental justice bulwark/defense and defiance against the bulwark of Wall Street, bankers, military industrial complex and robber barons — pre-industrial moneyed thugs, through to the industrial revolution war mongers, into the post industrialization billionaire monopolies and anti-worker massive corporations, now, currently, into the surveillance and digital transnational banking stage of late stage capitalism of the Too Big to Fail and Davos kind of money grubbers/controllers.

The stories of the people’s history and the voices of the indigenous people’s history of the United States as clearly written by Howard Zinn and Rozanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Loaded: A Disarming History; Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States) are precursors to this work by Ford, one that is detailed, full of the staff of life, as women throughout the ages of this country’s history are strip- searched, raped, medically tortured, beaten and disappeared for their clarion calls to stop the violence and oppression and ecocide of capitalism USA style. We are exposed to the blatant terroristic tactics of the police state, from redneck bruisers in county sheriff departments all the way up to states’ attorneys general and the country’s AG and all the way up to presidents.

In many of the hero cases Ford lays out, with all the prisoners exposed through her book’s raison d’etre of cataloging the lives of true warriors and politically incarcerated or lynched, we see a line between pacifism of Catholic nuns shackling themselves to the gates of Air Force compounds housing thermal nuclear weapons of mass destruction, to the outright anarchy of the fist and pipe bomb, as seen in the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army, to name just a few in the book where women were not only leaders, but fighting inside the radical groups to stop the sexism that was both rampant and contradictory to true socialism and equality of the working class, all classes.

It’s clear that the women of color have had two or three major impediments put in front of them as revolutionaries and dissidents:

Linda discusses much in her life and writes much about Sioux water protector, Red Fawn Fallis, who is facing 20 years to life for a federal offense of “possessing a weapon.” All trumped up, all out of sync with reality, all part of a system that oppresses women dissidents, women political prisoners. Police are brownshirts, DA’s are Gestapo, judges are SS. The entire white male class is rotten to the core, but when they have positions of power and are the jury, judge and executioner, and when they not only defend extrajudicial killings but encourage them, as their paymasters in the elite class not only demand this force of anti-democratic SOP, but pay for the killings, THEN why the hell do we take it?

In this screwed up Hollywood spectacle society, passivity, compliance and fear rule, when we should be angry daily, mounting daily a contempt of and disregard for the bosses, the Little and Big Eichmann’s.

Passionate, organized hatred is the element missing in all that we do to try to change the world. Now is the time to spread hate, hatred for the rich. — Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

The women political prisoners of the past would be turning in their graves to see how compliant and infected with celebrity fawning disease and rich man/woman coveting syndrome this society has been buried under. But alas, the racism of this society far exceeds the regular patriarchy the society has and continues to fall under like an avalanche of new and more draconian/high tech oppressions.

Environmental racism is twofold for women dissenters. First, the dominant white/capitalist power structure has never had a problem poisoning the lands and neighborhoods of black and brown people, assigning them little worth or consideration when it comes to their healthy existence. Second, any protest coming from nonwhite activists has little chance of success, and any excess force used against such protest will bring few consequences. So, Native-American women who stand as water protectors for their threatened lands, and African-American women who dare to confront state/corporate pollution of their cities face strong reprisals from the police state.

— Linda Ford, Chapter Eleven, Police State I.

In the second part of this analysis, we will drill down on Ford’s forms of agitation women have engaged in and for which they have been treated as political prisoners, though the society in general doesn’t recognize our fascism, doesn’t acknowledge our police state underpinning and fails to collectively understand how the power of the government wedded to the corporation will stop dissent. I will also talk with Linda concerning a few key points that brought her to write the book and her assessment of the world now, which is becoming supercharged and on steroids, as this country – and the world – spirals down the drain of fascistic lock step compliant acceptance.

Here, early on in her book, Linda lays out the types of protests and dissent which have been embraced by “women agitators who have become political prisoners.”

  1. Anti-capitalist – This would include women labor organizers. It encompasses socialists and anarchists, who have long worked against the profit-based capitalist/government system, working to improve the lot and the rights of workers, and so have frequently run afoul of the authorities accordingly.
  2. Antipatriarchal – Feminist activist, primarily in the early and late 20th Century, have used protests and civil disobedience in their critique of a male-dominated, militaristic society which has sometimes meant going up against police and government officials – and jail time.
  3. Anti-imperialist and authoritarian/anti-war – Women have long worked as pacifist and anti-war protesters. Caught up in war hysteria, they have historically been jailed for their efforts, whether World War I, the Vietnam War or the invasion of Iraq. Sometimes they have been victims of political decisions that labeled them enemies for their relation to external foes, as with Japanese- American or Muslim-American women. They have fought against US wars and the authoritarian nature of American government foreign policy, and also against imperialism/authoritarianism in its domestic policy, particularly toward African-Americans, but also against Native-Americans, and more broadly, to protest the abuse of the poor by elites.
  4. Anti-white supremacy — Women who have been civil rights activists, whether anti-lynching/white violence, Martin Luther King marchers, or Black Panthers, have been punished for resisting racism which has persisted in this society since its inception. The recent protests against anti-black police brutality have resulted in very harsh reprisals. Women have also paid dearly for supporting the American Indian movement, and the Puerto Rican independence movement. And now women who are Muslim activists or defenders, or even in some cases because they are Muslim, in a time of an amorphous war on terror, have also been imprisoned by the American government.  

These categories are touchstones for illustrating the history of dissent that has created this political class of heroines, Women Politicals. Today, however, in a hyper-distracted society and one dovetailed to many superficial things created by hyper-consumerism, with the white dominant Western Civilization normalizing war, destruction and theft, I would be hard pressed to find that many Americans willing to engage in self-reflection and self-condemnation through the very catharsis of reading Linda’s book. Causes they can relate to? Seeing these women dissenters as both leaders of thought and necessary people of liberation in democracy?

I am hopeful I will do justice to the book’s core humanness and the principal architectonics of Ford’s investigation of a hidden and covered up history.

Paul Kirk Haeder has been a journalist since 1977. He's covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/community journalism situations in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's been a part-time faculty since 1983, and as such has worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, as a private contractor-writing instructor for US military in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Washington. He organized Part-time faulty in Washington State. His book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his autobiography, weekly or bi-weekly musings and hard hitting work in chapter installments, at LA Progressive. He blogs from Waldport, Oregon. Read his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam, coming out Jan. 2020 from Cirque Journal. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.