This past Sunday the better half and I visited the Arts Center in Lorton. Tucked away in one of the corners of its T-shaped layout, a bronze marker erected by the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution (Fairfax County Chapter) brings back a sad chapter at what was supposed to be a progressive reform facility. After these suffragettes were arrested for picketing outside the White House in 1917, they were imprisoned at the Lorton facility and treated badly.
Realizing I knew next to nothing about the movement, home it was to google and a trip to the library.
The struggle to gain voting rights for women in the United States was a long one. The pioneers and brave supporters of the cause made many stands, but turns out this particular chapter is considered a huge turning point. In fact, the League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area and the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority formed, “The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Committee.” Along with their partners, they are working to build a memorial nearby. Not sure why the location is not at the Lorton site, but the Occoquan Regional Park setting should be excellent, and we applaud them for their work to commemorate these women who went through hell at the prison.
There are a lot of directions you can go with the history of the women’s rights movement. In the second half of the 19th Century, greats such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell and Mary Church Terrell established organizations and led causes.
The name that grabbed my attention is Alice Paul. The bio at the Alice Paul Institute website dedicated to her says,
Alice Paul was the architect of some of the most outstanding political achievements on behalf of women in the 20th century. Born on January 11, 1885 to Quaker parents in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, Alice Paul dedicated her life to the single cause of securing equal rights for all women.
After she graduated from Swarthmore College (later received PhD), Paul went to England to join up with the British Suffrage Movement. She found her way there, learning that deeds pushed the envelope more than mere words. In London, Paul learned the attention-getting ways from one of the best, Emmeline Pankhurst, and befriended Lucy Burns, a fellow American with a burning desire to affect change. For both, the school of hard knocks was exactly that. Suffragettes were beaten when arrested and endured harsh prison conditions.
(Note: Around this time, the British press referred to the suffragists as suffragettes. As Mary Walton notes in her book, the term was a put down but the women protestors took it as a badge of honor).
Upon her return to the States in 1910, Paul began to apply what she had learned. The women’s movement had stalled and needed fresh leadership. In late December 2012, Pauls moved to Washington where she rented a boardinghouse room on I Street. In the basement of a building at 1420 F Street, she held meetings to plan and raise funds for a protest procession along Pennsylvania Avenue.
Timing was everything. They wisely chose the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. 8,000 or so supporters took the symbolic march from the Capitol to the White House. Harassed, cornered, and treated like dirt by on-lookers who the police ignored, they soldiered on. The front-page headlines were public awareness gold, and moved the movement to the next level.
Deeds led the way, but words were important too. While others worked on state-by-state rights, Paul zeroed in on fighting for an amendment to the Constitution. Now the leader of the National Woman’s Party, she also kept up the aggressive approach. In 1917, the suffragettes turned up the heat by picketing in front of the White House. Members of the National Woman’s Party were arrested and sent to the Occoquan Workhouse (I guess the Lorton tag came later). The old-school warden brutalized them.
As noted by Women in History, (Vignettes)
November 15, 1917, became known as the Night of Terror at the Workhouse:
"Under orders from W.H. Whittaker, superintendent of the Occoquan Workhouse, as many as forty guards with clubs went on a rampage, brutalizing thirty-three jailed suffragists. They beat Lucy Burns, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head, and left her there for the night. They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed, and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, who believed Mrs. Lewis to be dead, suffered a heart attack. According to affidavits, other women were grabbed, dragged, beaten, choked, slammed, pinched, twisted, and kicked." [Barbara Leaming, Katherine Hepburn. New York: Crown Publishers, 1995. Page 182.]
All the work and suffering finally paid off. President Wilson finally got the message and supported the 19th Amendment. Its passage gave women the right to vote.
Note: The 100th anniversary of the March 3 procession on Pennsylvania Avenue will be commemorated with a Suffrage Centennial Celebration in Washington the weekend of March 1-3. See their Facebook page for more info.
"A Woman’s Crusade, Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot," by Mary Walton
" Jailed for Freedom," Doris Stevens, Edited by Carol O’ Hare
The Library of Congress has an excellent primer, titled Historical Overview of the National Woman’s Party Origins in the NAWSA Congressional Committee.
"A Time For Courage: The Suffragette Diary of Kathleen Bowen, Washington, D.C. 1917" (Dear America Series) Kathryn Lasky