An Elementary Lesson in Women’s Suffrage: “Timeless” Season 2, Episode 7, Recapped

The Time Team, aided by the real-life ‘Mrs. Sherlock Holmes,’ travels to 1919 this week to save the 19th amendment

Sarah Sokolovic as Grace Humiston, the Mrs. Sherlock Holmes, in this week's episode. (Justin Lubin/NBC)
smithsonian.com

The most important fact to come out of this week's "Timeless" episode: NOTHING HAPPENED, THEY JUST TALKED, OKAY?

Of course I'm referring to Lucy disappearing into Flynn's room at the end of "King of the Delta Blues" and emerging the next morning with rumpled hair. Wyatt sees this and spends basically the whole episode being jealous and possessive. He knows, just as well as all of you do, that there's only one bed in that room.

Wyatt's possessiveness is of course totally on-brand with the themes of this week's episode, which takes us to 1919 and the height of the women’s suffrage movement. As we see in the opening teaser, the date is March 4, 1919: Prominent suffragist Alice Paul and 200 other women march for their rights in front of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House, where President Woodrow Wilson is scheduled to speak about the League of Nations. New York’s finest begin attacking the protesters as Wilson and Senator James Wolcott Wadsworth, Jr., walk up the opera house steps,, but amid the chaos, Paul pleads directly with Wilson to support suffrage. His heart is touched, both by the speech and by the brutal treatment of the women, and he nods his head in agreement. (The 19th Amendment is passed by the Senate just three months later.)

As per usual, this week’s episode hinges on the question of what if all that never happened.

Which, in real history, is mostly the case. The march itself did occur outside the opera house, albeit at night, where Wilson did in fact give a speech. Paul was there, and she was arrested, but there’s no evidence that she spoke to Wilson, or that Wilson even noticed the suffragists. In this clipping from an unknown newspaper the reporter describes the violence the estimated 100 policemen inflicted inflicted on 40 of the women: Women were “bruised and trampled upon…[with] black eyes, broken lips and bruised cheeks...bleeding and court plastered, arms and hands were sprained, clothing torn to tatters and hair falling down their backs.”

During the protest, according to the report, the women “carried conspicuous banners with purple lettering on a background of white. The largest of these, a six foot affair, bore the legend: ‘Mr. President, What Are You Going to Do for Women Suffrage.’”

By this point, however, Wilson was already in favor of suffrage; his mind had been changed after learning about the brutal treatment of suffragists like Paul who had, prior to this date, picketed the White House and been imprisoned, force-fed to break hunger strikes, and sometimes brutally beaten. By 1918, Wilson had publicly spoken before Congress endorsing women's rights to vote.

Senator Wadsworth, a Republican from New York, was not as enlightened and was staunchly anti-suffrage; he was one of the 25 senators to vote against the 19th amendment in Congress. This makes him the logical target for Rittenhouse’s latest scheme: frame Alice Paul for his murder so she gets locked up before she can deliver her history-changing speech to Wilson. The Time Team teams up with Lady Detective Grace Humiston to clear Paul's name. Along the way, Rittenhouse agent Emma briefly joins up with the good guys, supposedly because she believes in women’s lib, but one can never truly trust anyone from Rittenhouse.

Humiston is one of those figures not taught in history class, but perhaps should be. A real-life heroine, Humiston was a lawyer at a time when very few women were and opened a practice called The People's Law Firm, which specialized in helping immigrants and low-income Americans. While investigating a missing persons case, she traveled to the South and unraveled the exploitative "peonage" system, under which immigrants were recruited on the false promises of high wages and opportunities for advancement, only to arrive at the turpentine and lumber camps already in debt to their new bosses, and unable to leave. Humiston busted the peonage rings and was appointed special assistant U.S. District Attorney in 1906, just two years after she passed the bar.

By 1917, she had started working as a detective. Her fame was enough that a wealthy man hired her to investigate the case of his missing daughter, Ruth Cruger. Although Ruth taught Sunday school and had no boyfriend, the NYPD concluded that Ruth had eloped and closed the case. Humiston doggedly pursued the case and ultimately found Cruger's body beneath a motorcycle shop that the police had supposedly already searched twice. (More details on the case, and the police kickback scheme it uncovered, can be found in Smithsonian.com's 2011 article.) The press named her “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes” and the NYPD named her special investigator in charge of missing girls, which is where Lucy and Wyatt find her.

Humiston discovers who actually murdered the senator and then fatally poisons Paul while she’s imprisoned (it’s another Rittenhouse sleeper agent), bu without Paul to give the speech, Lucy argues that someone else should. Here, Lucy and Humiston are written so as to be pitted against each other: Lucy is all, "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other," and Humiston is all, "I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and so should those other women."

When the time comes, Humiston, apparently inspired by Lucy's gumption and by the sacrifices the other marchers are making, stands tall and delivers the speech Paul was supposed to have made as Wilson looks on. It works, and when the team returns to the present, women still have the vote.

A few more notes:

  • Throughout the episode, the women marchers are referred to as suffragettes, even by Lucy, who should know better! "Suffragette" was originally a term applied to women by (mostly) male writers to demean and belittle them. Some women, especially in Britain, embraced and reclaimed the "suffragette" label, but many in the U.S. stuck with suffragist. As the magazine put out by the National Woman's Party, founded by Alice Paul, was called The Suffragist, it's safe to say Paul preferred the latter term.
  • Initially, Lucy suspects that Rittenhouse is out to take out Wilson before he can travel to Europe to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles and help create the League of Nations, to which Rufus retorts, “and make Germany great again.” (As my very astute editor pointed out, though, this might have run counter to Rittenhouse ideals, as the punitive reparations imposed on Germany after World War are widely believed to have been one cause of Hitler’s rise to power.Which is probably why Rittenhouse left Wilson alone.)

    At any rate, Wilson’s speech on March 4, 1919, was along the same lines as his famous “14 Points” speech from the year before. In that speech, he laid out eight ideas for how to reorganize European soil but also five policy ideas including arms reduction and the elimination of secret treaties. His final, 14th point, called for forming the League of Nations. As you may remember, the U.S. never officially joined (Congress had concerns), and it failed to prevent a second World War. It was replaced by the U.N., which has also failed to prevent global conflict but is now the largest intergovernmental organization in the world.
  • Humiston, throughout the episode, acts very Sherlock-y, making big statements and then explaining exactly what evidence led her to that conclusion. (The first thing she says to Lucy is "You have better things to do than waste your time and your keen intellect on a married man, even if he is a soldier and a war hero," which she deduced simply by looking at her and Wyatt.) But the real Humiston rejected the "Mrs. Sherlock Holmes" label. She told the New York Times in 1917 that she'd never read a Holmes story and was "not a believer in deduction. Common sense and persistence will always solve a mystery."
  • Also, she may not have been as anti-Paul as she was portrayed. In the same 1917 Times interview, she said, "I am not a suffragette, but I certainly am not an anti. If giving the vote to women could abolish white slavery or the other nefarious practices, if it could make better the lot of womankind, then by all means let us vote."
  • Solid marks for Connor and Jiya's digital forensics work. In this episode, they sort through a bunch of computer junk left over from the Rittenhouse raid, and find a chunk of...some kind of computer part. They plug it in and get a photo off it (of Jessica (!!))). I ran that scene past a nearby electronics nerd and he said that the chunk looks like it could legitimately be computer storage of some sort (and not just a random jumble of electronics and wires), and that it probably came from an Apple computer. Hey Rittenhouse, Steve Jobs was a child of an immigrant, be careful how Aryan you make America if you like your computers to work.
  • Rufus, having been told that he will die at the hands of cowboys, realizes that that makes him invincible in 1919. No cowboys, no death. Except that "no death" doesn't mean "not brutally beaten by cops," a painful fact he learns after overconfidently jumping into a melee. Also, fate has a way of twisting these oddly specific predictions of one's own death in ways people don't expect. Just ask Macbeth.

Next week the team travels to 1980s Washington, D.C. We’ll keep an eye out for Ronald Reagan, Marion Barry, some Go-Go, shoulder pads, (Ed. note: Mr. T, perhaps?) and at least one shot of the Smithsonian, if we’re lucky.

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