Editor’s note: Alice Reagan, an associate professor of history at Northern Virginia Community College’s Woodbridge campus, played a leading role in the development of the Lucy Burns Museum, which commemorates the strength of the women’s suffrage protestors who endured brutal treatment at the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Virginia in 1917.
A longtime faculty member, Reagan taught American Women’s history for years before joining museum organizers. She hopes that visitors will be inspired to use their right to vote after they learn what happened to the suffrage prisoners, who were willing to endure harassment and physical hardships to obtain what they insisted was theirs by right.
By Alice Reagan, associate professor of history, NOVA, Woodbridge campus
On November 15, 1917, 32 members of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) arrived at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. They thought they were supposed to go to the DC jail to join their leader Alice Paul.
Dorothy Day, a 19-year-old journalist from New York, recalled in her memoirs that plans changed when they arrived at the D.C. jail and were turned away. Instead, they were shown into the office at Occoquan where they refused to give their names or don the prison clothing, demanding to be treated as political prisoners.
The superintendent, William H. Whittaker arrived several hours later with a group of guards. When the group’s spokesperson, Dora Lewis, a wealthy Philadelphia widow, demanded political prisoner status, she was told to ‘shut up” by Whittaker and he ordered some of his men to take her away.
Other guards quickly seized the other women and dragged them across what is now Route 123 to the men’s workhouse. The women were literally thrown into the cells there normally occupied by men with delirium tremens.
Dora Lewis was thrown so hard that she sustained a concussion. Lucy Burns, the other leader of the National Woman’s Party prisoners, found herself handcuffed to her cell door with nothing on but a blanket after she attempted a roll call of her colleagues.
This incident became known as the Night of Terror by the suffragist prisoners. It was latest escalation in the conflict between the National Woman’s Party and the Woodrow Wilson administration.
Ever since Wilson won the election of 1912, Alice Paul and the NWP had been locked with him in giant game of one-upmanship. Paul and her allies staged a huge parade the same day Wilson arrived for his inauguration. Deciding to confront and embarrass the Democrats in power, the NWP staged a number of peaceful protests, culminating in January 1917 with their Silent Sentinels, who began picketing the White House on a daily basis.
No one had ever picketed the White House until then. The women carried banners that became increasingly controversial, especially after
the United States entered World War I. When the banners compared Wilson to
Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, the women faced not just criticism from the administration, but violent reactions by onlookers at the White House.
The Wilson administration tried to stop the pickets, but when arrests, brief jail sentences and time in Occoquan did not convince the women to cease, the administration upped the ante, using violence against the suffragist prisoners. All the while, the NWP kept up their demand for a federal amendment to the Constitution that would give American women the vote.
Although some western states granted woman suffrage, Paul and her supporters knew southern states would not grant women the vote.
The Commonwealth of Virginia was a good example of the issues the suffragists faced in the South. Virginia’s constitutional convention in 1902 restricted suffrage with a poll tax and a literacy test in an effort to curtail Black voting. Attempts between 1912 and 1915 to pass woman’s suffrage in Virginia were defeated by depressingly large margins, with only a few members of the General Assembly voting “aye.”
Virginia suffragists split over the issue, some trying to continue the state effort, while others joined Paul’s NWP and called for the federal amendment. Some Virginia NWP members went to join the picketing in 1917. Maud Jamison, a former teacher from Norfolk, was one of the first Silent Sentinels on January 10, 1917.
Sophie Meredith of Richmond joined the NWP when she decided in 1915 that Virginia’s legislature would never approve suffrage as a state issue. Norfolk doctor’s wife Pauline Adams did 60 days at Occoquan for her part in the picketing.
On some toilet paper, Adams wrote to her son at the University of Virginia, that she could not have her glasses, tooth brush or comb. Dr. Adams tried to pay her $25 fine to secure her release, but she refused to allow it. Unless Paul and her allies were successful, Virginia women would wait for the vote for much longer.
Within a short time, the story of the Night of Terror leaked to the press, and the women’s lawyers were able to take their case to a federal judge in Alexandria. Judge Edwin Waddil’s main question was why had the women been sent to Occoquan in the first place? Court papers clearly showed they were supposed to be in the D.C. jail. He ordered them released.
Many in his court and onlookers were appalled by the condition of the women prisoners. Many had been on a hunger strike, and Burns and Lewis had been force-fed under Whittaker’s orders. Many were still bruised from the Night of Terror.
Public sympathy for the women, who were mostly well-to-do peaceful protesters, was one of the factors that nudged Wilson towards support for woman’s suffrage. The 19th Amendment was ratified in August 1920.
But Black women were denied access to the ballot because of poll taxes and literacy tests in many southern states, including Virginia.
Richmond’s Maggie Lena Walker and Ora Brown Stokes organized a voter registration drive for Black women, helping them pay their poll taxes and prepare for the literacy test.
In other parts of Virginia, however, access to the ballot was restricted by race. Other women of color faced similar hurdles. In spite of the 24th Amendment (1964) that outlawed poll taxes in federal elections, Virginia’s Byrd Machine insisted the poll tax could still be enforced for state and local elections.
In 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections that that Virginia’s poll tax was unconstitutional. As the four plaintiffs, three from Fairfax County and one from Norfolk, argued they should not be denied their right to vote because they were poor. That ended the poll tax, but the controversy over access to the ballot remains today.
The Occoquan Workhouse closed in 1998 and was transformed as the Workhouse Arts Center, opening in 2008. The plan for the Arts Center included a museum to focus on the history of the prison, with a special emphasis on the suffragists who did time there. In total, 72 members of the NWP spent time there. Lucy Burns, the museum’s namesake was sentenced to a total of 7 months there, more than any other suffragist.
Opened in January 2020, the Lucy Burns Museum includes a force-feeding display, the jail logs showing the women and their sentences, along with plenty of first-person testimony from the suffragists themselves. It also includes information on woman’s suffrage in other countries and a display that urges visitors to register and vote.
For more information on the Lucy Burns Museum, visit https://www.workhousearts.org/lucyburnsmuseum/
Alice Reagan can be reached via email at: email@example.com