It has been less than 100 years since women in the United States gained the right to vote when the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. Ask yourself where you would be today if that Amendment had not passed – by one vote, I might add. History books briefly mention the 72-year suffragist movement, but omit a little-known, critical chapter that took place right here in Northern Virginia at the Occoquan Workhouse. Let’s examine how and why that happened and what the Turing Point Suffragist Memorial Association (TPMS) has to do with it.
Officially, the suffrage movement in the U.S. began with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 convened by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. A “Declaration of Sentiments” based on the Declaration of Independence resulted. In it were listed the many inequities women suffered under the legal and political systems: no voice in the laws, no independent rights after marriage, no custody of children in case of divorce, no right to a college education, no opportunity to enter most professions and no right to vote. Many in attendance did not support women’s right to vote, but social reformer Frederick Douglas eloquently persuaded for its inclusion.
The convention framed a national discussion about women’s rights in America and marked the beginning of a massive civil rights movement that would spawn numerous women’s rights organizations and span the next seven decades. The right to vote was seen as the first step to change the traditional and unjust systems that existed against women. Susan B. Anthony entered the movement in 1852 when she joined forces with Stanton. Together they started the National Woman Suffrage Association which eventually merged with the American Woman Suffragist Association to become the National America Woman Suffragist Association (NAWSA). Under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, the NAWSA served as the parent organization for hundreds of state and local organizations, and its membership swelled into the millions.
On the eve of President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, March 3, 1913, then 28-year old Alice Paul, a member of the NAWSA Congressional Committee, organized more than 5,000 women and men from across the country and around the world to march through Washington, DC. Led by lawyer Inez Milholland riding upon a white horse, it took six hours to traverse the unruly crowd estimated at 500,000 who jeered and threatened them, but they refused to back down.
Collegiate women of the newly established sorority at Howard University, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., joined the march as did many from the National Association of Colored Women including Ida B. Wells. Black women suffragists were frequently discriminated against by white suffragist organizations because of demands made by southern, white women. However, black men had gained the vote after the Civil War and black women, now too, crusaded for their right to vote (to be continued in our May/June 2015 Issue).
By: Patricia D. Wirth