Preserving American Freedom

The Evolution of American Liberties in Fifty Documents

Dora Kelly Lewis



Portrait of Dora Kelly Lewis, in Caroline Katzenstein Papers (Am .8996), Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Executive member, National Executive Committee, National Woman's Party (NWP), from 1913, chairman of finance, 1918, national treasurer, 1919, head ratification committee, 1920
Dora Kelly Lewis, also often referred to by her married name, Mrs. Lawrence Lewis, was a member of a prominent Philadelphia family and a bold advocate for women's rights. She had been active in the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) before breaking off to help form the more militant Congressional Union of Woman Suffrage (CU), which soon became the National Woman's Party (NWP).
Lewis frequently put her safety and freedom on the line for her cause; she was arrested at least five times between 1917 and 1919 in connection with pro-suffrage demonstrations. On June 23, 1917, she was arrested for displaying a banner outside the White House that read, in part: "We the women of America tell you that America is not a democracy. Twenty-million American women are denied the right to vote. President Wilson is the chief opponent of their national enfranchisement. Help us make this nation really free." She and her fellow banner-holder, Lucy Burns, were released shortly thereafter on promise to appear in court. On July 4, Lewis was arrested again for picketing the White House, this time serving three days in jail. On November 10, 1917, she and Lucy Burns were again arrested along with a group of other suffrage activists and sentenced to 60 days imprisonment. At the Washington, DC, jail and, later, the Occoquan Workhouse, Lewis suffered brutal treatment. On the "Night of Terror" (November 15) at Occoquan during which she and many suffragists were beaten, Lewis was hurled by guards headfirst into an iron bed and temporarily feared dead by her cellmates. In protest of the conditions to which they were subjected, National Woman's Party leader Alice Paul, Lewis, and Burns led a hunger strike, which led to them being force-fed.
In spite of these experiences, Lewis continued her activism after her release from Occoquan. At a rally held in memory of suffragist Inez Milholland in Washington on August 6, 1918, Lawrence was the primary speaker; she was arrested only a few sentences into her address. Others rose up to take her place and were arrested in turn. That time, Lewis was sentenced to 15 days imprisonment. On January 1, 1919, Lewis set off the NWP's "watch fire" protests when she set fire to copies of President Wilson's speeches on democracy. She was sentenced to five days in jail.
After the Congressional passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919, Lewis, like many of her cohort, turned her attention to individual states. She travelled throughout states such as Georgia, Kentucky, and Delaware to encourage support for ratification, meeting with limited success. Although Delaware and Georgia rejected ratification, the efforts and sacrifices of Lewis and her fellow agitators met with eventual success when the 19th Amendment was finally ratified in 1921.
Dora Kelly Lewis Correspondence (Collection 2137), Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
"[Mrs.] Lawrence Lewis [Dora Lewis] of Philadelphia on release from jail after five [d]ays of hunger striking," August 1918, Records of the National Woman's Party, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Washington, DC.
"Officers and National Organizers I-S" in Profiles: Selected Leaders of the National Woman's Party, Photographs from the Records of the National Woman's Party, Library of Congress/American Memory, accessed December 2012.
Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920).