As we commemorate the centennial of women’s suffrage and celebrate women’s history, it is appropriate to recognize an unlikely local figure in the Suffrage Movement: Mary A. Nolan. Ms. Nolan was born in Martinsburg, Virginia in 1844. She became involved in the Southern library movement, and was instrumental in establishing a library in Laurens, South Carolina. Her husband, John R. Nolan, was a superintendent for the Southern Railway. At the turn of the century, they moved to Jacksonville, where they had a home at 2212 Market Street. In 1913, John Nolan passed away and Mary moved in with her stepdaughter Amy and her family at 121 W. 7th Street.
In November 1917, at the age of 73 and disabled, Nolan traveled to Washington, D.C. and joined the pickets at the White House in support of women’s suffrage. On November 10th, she was among 41 women who were arrested for picketing. All charges were dismissed, but 31 of the women, including Nolan, returned an hour later to continue the protest. She was arrested again and sentenced to six days in prison.
Photo of Mary Nolan, circa 1917, courtesy of Library of Congress
Nolan, and the rest of the suffragists, were sent to the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Virginia, where conditions were unsanitary and unsafe. There was a single bar of soap in the shower to share among them, and their food often contained worms. As a result, the prisoners staged a hunger strike, only to find themselves force-fed by tubes in their throats.
On November 14th, 1917, the guards retaliated against their protests by attacking the prisoners, including Nolan. The women were brutalized and tortured. Nolan herself suffered abuses, being thrown into her cell and landing on an iron bed. After her release on November 20th, Nolan reported her experiences to the National Women’s Party. She also wrote an article published in The Suffragist, which became the first published account detailing the atrocities of what would become known as the Night of Terror.
Unfazed, Nolan’s involvement with the NWP continued. She participated in the Silent Sentinels and Watchfires of Freedom. On January 24th, 1919, Nolan burned one of President Woodrow Wilson’s speeches and was re-arrested. All told, she was arrested ten times and was jailed five times. In February 1919, Nolan and other suffragists embarked on a tour by rail called “The Prison Special” to attract support for women’s suffrage. Travelling on a train named “Democracy Limited,” they often dressed in prison uniforms, shared their experiences behind bars, and spread the message of their cause. On February 18th, 1919, “The Prison Special” pulled into Jacksonville, where on the following morning Nolan was the speaker at an NWP breakfast.
Mary A. Nolan passed away on May 18th, 1925. Buried in Evergreen Cemetery, her grave was unmarked until 1982, when the local chapter of the National Organization for Women placed a headstone there.
Despite her record of contributions during the climactic years of the suffrage movement, very little scholarship exists relating to Nolan. Among the many who are celebrated for courageously and tirelessly asserting for women’s rights, Nolan has remained overlooked. Her legacy and her fierce spirit deserve preservation. As a Jacksonville woman who withstood adversity and faced daunting challenges, her strength of mind, character and body, all constitute another of Jacksonville’s many fascinating stories.