Document 8I: Excerpts from letter from Kate Richards O'Hare to "Sweethearts," 3 September 1919, printed in Kate Richards O'Hare, Kate O'Hare's Prison Letters (Girard, Kansas: The New Appeal Publishing Company, 1919), pp. 88, 90-91, 92-94 (History of Women Microfilm, reel 914, no. 7648).

 


Sept. 3, 1919.

Dear Sweethearts:

        This is only Wednesday and my letter cannot go out until tomorrow night, but as I want to write for Emma [Goldman] I will do mine now and hers tomorrow.

        I am not as tired tonight as usual and for some reason we have light so I can write quite comfortably. I am still feeling fine, the cool weather is such a comfort and the nice dining room makes it possible to eat without the awful revulsion that made meals such a nightmare. We are having very good meals now too, lots of fresh vegetables and our bread is like real home-made bread. I get lovely butter from Mr. Asel and with all the nice jam and preserves and honey that we have I am getting fat. We have plenty of the loveliest watermelons that I have eaten since the encampments in Texas and Oklahoma and we get a huge quarter section that makes one feel like a stuffed toad. In fact, I am afraid between eating so heartily and having no exercise I will resemble a featherbed belted in the middle when you see me again.

* * *

It is so very hard for me to read anything that requires concentration except on Sunday and my letter demands most of my time on that day. I am having my first experience with absolute and utter physical exhaustion continued day after day. Of course I have worked all of my life and have often been completely exhausted, but it has always been an exceptional condition while here it is the common, every-day thing. I find that when my body is so completely exhausted my brain works badly. I have the strange sensation of beginning a paragraph and finding my eyes wandering away to another part of the page quite without my will. I readily understand now the stupidity and ignorance that encompasses the life of the workers who habitually work beyond their strength. After the Friday night hot bath, the Saturday half holiday and the Sunday morning nap I am almost normal again and can write with a fair degree of intelligence and read with pleasure and profit, but during the week any mental exertion is very painful. I looked forward with so much anticipation to the privilege of writing a mid-week letter but now I find it will only be possible to manage a very ragged sort of an epistle. I shall try writing earlier in the week, say Tuesday or Wednesday when I am not so weary and perhaps I can do better. Some good friend, I don't know whom, understands the mental capacity of a prisoner after doing a task and he sends me Snappy Stories. That and the daily papers are about my mental capacity.

* * *

        There is something that I want to try to make the comrades understand, yet I find it hard to put into words. Sometimes I receive letters expressing a note of hatred and revenge in the bitterness that the writer feels for what I am undergoing here and what they feel to be a frightful injustice. These letters always leave me with a feeling of sadness and depression. I regret so deeply that all my friends cannot feel as I do about the matter. Of course I suffer; it would be foolish and untruthful for me to say that I do not. No mother can be separated from her children--no wife from her husband--no active woman from her work and not suffer. I suffer from the heavy, coarse work in the shop and from the fact that I know my unpaid labor is being used to drag down the wages of every girl who works in an overall factory. I suffer from the stupid discipline, the lack of exercise and the long hours spent in a tiny, crowded cell. I suffer mentally because I am denied the opportunity to do useful social labor in this unknown and unexplored field of scientific research. There is never a day passes that I do not regret keenly the lack of social consciousness that keeps me at a machine earning a few cents' profit for a contractor when I might just as well be making vitally important studies in prison problems, prison psychology and prison neurosis. If there was even a shortage of women for the machines it would not be so foolish, but there are more women than work can be found for and some of them would be far better jacket makers than I will ever be. I suffer spiritually from the stigma of shame that is being placed upon the country to which my ancestors have given their by my being here. Oh! There are a hundred ways I suffer, but do not all women suffer also? Do not the harassed housewives struggling piteously to feed their families face to face with the ruinous cost of living--do not the working women who must grapple with the problem of making scanty wages cover soaring prices--do not the women whose loved ones are sleeping over there in the blood-soaked soil of war-scarred France? It is not only that; "men must work and women must weep," but in these days of world travail all women must work as well as weep, and I am only bearing the common lot in a slightly more spectacular war. I really don't feel that in being here I am making "a great sacrifice." I would have made a greater and more painful sacrifice to have failed to speak the truth as I saw it, or to have failed to take my stand for my conception of justice and righteousness. I am quite sure that I would suffer more in the prison of cowardly silence than in the prison of iron and stone. I feel that I choose the better part and that I am really happier here than I would be outside if freedom meant the prostitution of the things I hold to be of greater value than mere seeming freedom.

        Some of my friends write me that these months have been filched from my life, but that is a mistake. God knows that they have been long, hard, wearisome months, but they have been rich, wonderful months also. I have lost much that we women hold dear, but I have gained much that could be gained in no other way. I have been denied the right to serve my comrades and my loved ones, but I have served those who needed service a thousand times more. We were in the yard Sunday morning and one of the colored girls said something very striking. Emma and I were walking up and down the courtyard and one of the colored girls said, "it's a d----- shame for wimmin like Miss Emma and Miss Kate to be here." Another rolled her eyes and said: "Shut yo lip child, or God sho strike yo daid, tain fo no nigger to shoot of her mouf bout whats God's will." The other sniffed disdainfully and replied: "Huh! God's will! God aint got nuffin to do with it, God aint sent them here, it wuz some d------- fool judges that ort to had their necks wrung while they wuz wearing didies." "Hush yo mouf!" the first cried, "yo sho give me gooseflesh. Aint yo got sense nuff to know dem wimmin aint doing time, dey is doing carious tonement like Jesus did. Them wimmin air pullin a task and eatin hash cause they got to do it if they help us pore devils."

        I wish that all my friends could feel as this poor black convict. Vicarious atonement--yes, perhaps that is what it is. Perhaps in being here I am not only atoning for my individual carelessness and thoughtlessness for the downmost dogs of life, but perhaps I am also atoning for the smugness of intelligence, the callousness of the educated and the smugness of so-called "good people." I am sure that my time has not been wasted here and that in the years that are to come I shall look back to these months as the most valuable part of my life. I am not bitter and I am glad of it. I so often think of Mr. Hildreth and the strange expression on his face the day I was sentenced and I wonder if he sleeps as peacefully as I on my prison bunk. I think of Judge Wade--I can see him yet, livid with rage, ravaged by hate, but not at all happy looking. I wonder if he realizes yet that his hate and rage and lust for vengeance harmed no one but himself. I am a considerably bigger and wiser woman than the day I stood before his bench and took his sentence with a smile. Thank God I can smile yet and because I can smile nothing has hurt or injured me. I wish all the comrades could understand that nothing is helped by having our hearts corroded with hate.

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