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Performing Prison: Dress, Modernity, and the Radical Suffrage Body

by Katherine Feo Kelly

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In 1917, members of the National Women’s Party—the radical branch of the suffrage movement in the USA—were arrested and jailed during an ongoing picketing campaign in Washington, DC. While incarcerated, suffrage prisoners wore coarse prison uniforms that they believed unjustly clothed their bodies in criminality; in time, however, reproductions of these much-loathed uniforms became the costumes for the suffragists’ celebrated “Prison Special” speaking tour, and, indeed, a critical element in their rhetorical campaign for equal rights. This essay examines the NWP suffragists’ engagement with the workhouse uniform over time, tying the changes in the suffragists’ conception and wearing of prison dress directly to shifts in party tactics. I conceptualize the wearing of prison uniforms outside of the workhouse as a public performance of suffrage rights that was dependent on the suffragists’ claim to be political prisoners. Once suffragists could separate themselves from common criminality, their use of prison dress took on incongruous proportions, in which coarse dress on the white, elite suffrage body was self-consciously used as visual evidence of what was shocking about disenfranchisement. Further exploration will show that such juxtaposition relied on exploiting existing discourses about class and race to tacitly underscore the legitimacy of the suffragists’ claims.

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