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Lecture Highlights Unsung Suffragist Hero

Published: November 8, 2013
Section: News


Last Thursday, the Women’s Studies Research Center hosted an event by Center scholar Pamela Swing, who presented a lecture on her grandmother Betty Gram, a radical suffragist who worked with several famous figures in the early 20th century. Swing first discovered her grandmother’s past in the early women’s rights movement as a high schooler when she wrote a paper on Gram.

Recently, Swing helped to clean out one of her grandmother’s beloved 18th-century Oregon houses, and found Gram’s personal archives. The archives, which are being donated to Harvard’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, are massive and include hundreds of typed articles, photographs and even scattered pieces of an unpublished memoir.

Swing’s lecture focused on her initial research into the archives. According to Swing, the information covered by the lecture, while substantial, drew from less than half of the documents in her grandmother’s archives. The lecture began with a description of Betty Gram’s work in the suffragist movement before moving backward and covering Gram’s earlier life. Gram was the daughter of a middle class Danish-American family living in Portland, Oregon and grew up with a passion for the arts and education.

She attended college for a year but had to drop out because of financial reasons. It was also at school that she first got involved in major actions within the voting movement. Gram became a radicalized feminist after being called with her sister to the East Coast by suffragist leader Alice Paul.

The most dramatic event of Gram’s career was with the suffragist movement, and the emotional focus of most of her writing, came when she and a group of around 160 women were arrested in 1917 for “disturbing the peace.” The arrest came in the wake of a series of protests against the treatment of Alice Paul in prison (Paul was force-fed and not allowed to sleep).

Gram and her group were told they were going to the same Washington State prison as Paul, but were actually taken to the Occoquan Workhouse, where they were subjected to constant hard labor, beatings and emotional abuse. Gram went on a hunger strike that lasted eight days, and another suffragist even suffered a heart attack but was ignored by the guards. After her release, Gram became a national organizer for the National Woman’s Party and worked harder than ever to pass the 19th Amendment.

“Doing this research has allowed me to love my grandmother in a whole new way,” Swing told the audience. She said she hopes that her work will allow her grandmother to finally become known and appreciated for her generally unknown work. The lecture ended with the audience singing the classic suffragist anthem “Alive, Oh!”