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To the Discussion Leader
Kathleen Bowen is a teenager torn between pride in her mother's active involvement picketing in front of the White House for the right of women to vote, and anger at her parent for not being home and available.
The year is 1917 and the drums of World War I are always heard beating in the background of Kat's diary. Louder sounds can be heard as the suffragettes chant their protest slogans while they are jeered by bystanders appalled at these ladies for challenging President Woodrow Wilson and the status quo of seeing women as second class citizens.
When Kat's mom and other suffragettes are arrested and placed in Occoquan workhouse, the whole mood in the diary changes to shock and disbelief as American citizens are imprisoned and fed food filled with bugs and worms; then force-fed to avoid the negative publicity if one of the women died from their hunger strike; then transferred to psychiatric units if they were deemed trouble makers.
A Time for Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen, Washington, D.C., 1917 is a book dear to the heart of its author, Kathryn Lasky. She grew up with a mother Lasky describes as "an independent, strong-willed, fiercely democratic woman who believed in women's right not only to vote, but also to manage money and plan families." Hortense Falender Lasky was a lifelong member of the League of Women Voters and Planned Parenthood, and was a founding member of Common Cause. Kathryn Lasky says the most challenging part of writing Kat's diary was depicting the ambivalence that Kat Bowen felt as a fourteen-year-old girl in the year of the picket line. In this challenge Lasky succeeds beautifully.
"I cannot believe that once I did not know what a picket line was. Well, I certainly do now. It is all we eat, think, and breathe — the White House vigil, the picket line," writes thirteen-year-old Katherine "Kat" Bowen. It is January of 1917 in Washington, D.C., and Kat's mother, older sister Nell, and Auntie Claire are crusading for women's right to vote. They, and many other women, have stationed themselves outside the White House hoping to gain the attention and support of President Woodrow Wilson. The President, however, has other concerns on his mind. The United States is about to enter World War I, and he is unsympathetic to the women's cause. Because of her age ("I am too young to be a silent sentinel and stand on the picket line") Kat spends much time feeling sorry for herself. Her busy physician father is gone a lot, and her mother and sister are always outside the White House. Kat finds comfort in the companionship of Alma, her same-age cousin and best friend.
Alma's father, Uncle Bayard, does not want Auntie Claire on the picket line. He feels her place is at home caring for their eight children, and he makes life miserable for her. He calls the whole suffrage movement, "this fool women's thing," and considers his wife and sister-in-law "stupid silly women."
Relations between Uncle Bayard and Auntie Claire deteriorate, and he "kidnaps" six of the children and takes them to live with his mother on her southern plantation. When Alma leaves, Kat feels lost and alone. Tensions also grow within Kat's house as Nell declares her desire to help the war effort, and she joins the Woman's Ambulance Corps in Europe. Kat receives a letter from Alma and hopes she'll soon be back in Washington. Rather than return to her unhappy home, however, Alma runs off, lies about her age, and joins the American Red Cross. She is also on her way to Europe.
Things begin to get hostile along the picket line as crowds come to hurl insults at the women. Some of the picketers, including Kat's mother, are arrested and sent to a workhouse. President Wilson, "embarrassed by having these fine white women in a prison with colored ladies," forces them to accept his pardon. The women go back to the picket line, and the crowd becomes ugly. Kat's mother is hit in the face by one of the "hooligans." Kat writes, "It is now said that the administration will begin to arrest pickets tomorrow. But what about the men who punch the women in the face and drag them along the sidewalk?" Kat's mother is again arrested, goes to trial, and is sentenced to 60 days in the workhouse. Kat writes letters to her mother, but the censor inks all the words out so that no secret messages can be smuggled in. Later, Kat learns that her mother is being transferred to the city jail where conditions are slightly better. Kat's mother and some other women begin a hunger strike to call attention to their cause. They must endure many indignities such as being force fed or being committed to the psychiatric ward.
Finally, the President caves in to pubic pressure to release the women, and Kat and her mother are tearfully reunited. Kat writes, "It was a miracle — my own mother not dead but alive and before me." As they hug each other, Kat notices that she has grown taller than her mother. Thinking of how her mother has suffered, but never wavered in her beliefs, Kat is humbled. She writes, "When I hugged her again and looked down at her thin white hair I knew that I hugged a giant, and that I would still have to grow in ways that could not be measured in inches."
Thinking About the Book
- In Kat's January 5th, 1917, diary entry, she copies a speech given by Sojourner Truth. Miss Paul writes to Kat, "This is one of my favorite speeches ever made by a woman." Re-read Miss Truth's speech. Why do you think these words were so important to Alice Paul?
- Kat and her father created a Victory Garden. In Kat's room she put up a poster that read, WILL YOU HAVE A PART IN VICTORY? EVERY GARDEN A MUNITIONS PLANT. What does this poster caption mean?
- What did you learn from Kat's diary that surprised you most? Explain.
- Why does Kat call March 19, 1917, "the worst day of her life?"
- Ask each member of your discussion group to come up with a list of three words that best describe Uncle Bayard. Share your lists. What words were mentioned most frequently?
- Kat is proud of her mother and her fight for the right of women to vote. But Kat is also angry at her. Why?
- Why do you think Kathryn Lasky, the author of A Time for Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen, included the story of Harriet Wilhelm and the trouble she has with her last name?
- If you could choose to live the life of one girl in this story, which life would you select — Kat's, Alma's, Nell's, or Cassie's? Explain your choice.
- Identify the following and explain their importance in Kat's diary.
- Clayton Act
- First Amendment to the Bill of Rights
- Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution
- Who do you think is the most courageous character in this story? Why do you think so?
- Kat and Alma frequently go to the Ardmore to enjoy a drink called a lime rickey. Try making this drink. Serve it to your friends along with some spoon bread like the Bowen's maid, Marietta, makes for the family.
- Getting American women the right to vote took the courage and dedication of many brave women. Allow each member of your discussion group to pick one of these heroic women. Find out what each did in the fight for women's rights. Share your reports with the whole group.
- Susan B. Anthony
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton
- Lucretia Mott
- Lucy Burns
- Carrie Chapman Catt
- Alice Paul
- Kat and Alma are always helping the suffragists sew banners with slogans to make the President aware of their demands. Pretend you are living in Kat's time and you want to persuade the President to hear your concerns. Using the computer, design a banner with a catchy slogan that will capture the President's attention.
Note to Teachers/Discussion Leaders: The Library of Congress has multiple lesson plans for teaching youngsters about the Suffrage Movement in the United States. You'll find scores of activities for students that will allow them to learn more about this period.
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.