In 1916, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns broke ties with NAWSA and established the National Women’s Party (NWP) that included public demonstrations
and protests, methods considered militant at the time. These efforts became the final fight to win the vote through a Constitutional amendment. In January 1917, Paul, Burns and other NWP members began to peacefully picket outside the White House to galvanize public support. They became known as the Silent Sentinels. When America entered WWI, public sentiment changed toward the protesters and beginning in June 1917 the suffragists were arrested on bogus charges such as unlawful assembly or obstructing traffic. Sentences were initially light, but when they didn’t deter the suffragists, sentences became longer and fines outrageous. When the suffragists refused to pay the fines on the grounds that they were innocent of the charges, they were incarcerated in retaliation either in the DC jail or the Occoquan Workhouse, a prison farm operated by the DC penal system. Over time more than 200 women were incarcerated.
About a third of those suffragists imprisoned were sent to the Occoquan Workhouse – some for as long as seven months, many in solitary confinement – where they endured humiliation, beatings, forced feedings and inhumane prison conditions complete with rats and maggot-infested food. Their crime: they wanted equality!
These women ranged in age from 19 to 73 and came from many different states. Some were recent immigrants and others were from well-established, politically connected families one of whom had attended a dinner with her husband at the White House. Many were college-educated and married, and included nurses, teachers, social workers, physicians and a geologist.
To protest the poor conditions at the workhouse, some suffragists, including Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, went on hunger strikes. Fearing that the suffragists would become martyrs if they starved to death, prison officials had them strapped down and force fed. Under the direction of the prison superintendent, suffragists also endured at least one brutal attack that took place during the night of November 14, 1917. This became known as as the Night of Terror. Word of the abusive treatment of suffragists began to leak out and editorials were published by local newspapers.
What is being done to memorialize these brave women so few of us know about? The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association is a 501(c)(3) dedicated to honoring the suffragists by raising awareness and building a national memorial that will reflect the strength of these women who came from all over the country and the significance of their struggle. In partnership with NOVA Parks, the TPSM national memorial and gardens will be located on two acres near the spot where women were imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse (the original building was destroyed).
By: Patricia D. Wirth
Turning Point Suffragist Memorial