08/25/10: In a Virginia prison, a fight for equality

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

ON AUG. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote. Since then, Aug. 26 has been known as Women’s Equality Day.

A marker near Lorton in Fairfax County bears an inscription that gives a little history of the struggle: “In the nearby Occoquan Workhouse, from June to December, 1917, scores of women suffragists were imprisoned by the District of Columbia for picketing the White House demanding their right to vote. Their courage and dedication during harsh treatment aroused the nation to hasten the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. The struggle for woman’s suffrage had taken 72 years.”

I wonder how many people drive by that marker every day without knowing what happened there.

In January 1917, the National Woman’s Party began picketing the White House, the first political activists to do so. The group, formed just six months earlier, had a single plank in its party platform: immediate passage of the Susan B. Anthony federal suffrage amendment. Every day, the women marched to the White House and took up their posts as “silent sentinels,” carrying banners with messages for President Woodrow Wilson. As his car pulled through the gates, the president would   tip his hat to the women.

The cordiality changed when the U.S. entered World War I in April. While the focus of many activists changed to supporting the war effort, the NWP continued to picket. Some of their banners carried simple messages — “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” — while others were much more incendiary, such as those calling him “Kaiser Wilson.” The around-the-clock vigils also included hanging Wilson in effigy and burning copies of his speeches.

Wartime protests were seen as unpatriotic, and the women were often attacked by angry mobs. Still the women kept coming.

By June, the picketers began to be arrested for “obstructing traffic.” Refusing to pay the fine — the NWP firmly defended the rights of free speech, free assembly and dissent — the women were jailed. Some ended up in the Occoquan Workhouse.

The superintendent of the Occoquan Workhouse was known for his cruelty, and he and his staff considered the women traitors. They were given rancid food, denied medical care and refused visitors. Some women undertook hunger strikes and were then forcibly fed. The women, once released, returned to the posts at the White House. Emboldened, more joined them, leading to more arrests. Conditions at the prison deteriorated.

On the night of Nov. 15, 1917,   33 women were brought to the workhouse. They were met by 44 men wielding clubs. The women were beaten, kicked, dragged and choked. One had her head smashed against an iron bed, knocking her out. Another was stabbed between the eyes with the broken staff of her banner. One of the NWP organizers, Lucy Burns, had her hands handcuffed above her head to her cell door and was left in that position overnight.

It became known as the “Night of Terror.”

The women, beaten but not broken, staged a hunger strike, which lasted three days. Fearing they would die, the superintendent moved Burns to another jail and declared the strike over. Burns was force-fed — reports are that it took five people to hold her down and when she wouldn’t open her mouth, the feeding tube was forced up her nostril.

Treatment of the women leaked out, and within two weeks, a court-ordered hearing was held, exposing the situation to the world. Not only were the women released, but the cause of suffrage became a nationwide one. President Wilson announced his support for the amendment; in 1919, it passed both the House and the Senate.

On Aug. 18, 1920, an assemblyman in Tennessee cast the deciding vote in favor of the amendment after receiving a telegram from his mother. Eight days later, the ratification was certified.

With that, the 19th amendment obtained the necessary 36 states for passage. Despite being home to infamous Occoquan Workhouse, Virginia was not among them. The General Assembly finally ratified the 19th amendment in 1952.

There are more than 2,000 historical markers in Virginia, documenting our role in shaping the nation’s history. It is hard to convey, in a few sanitized words, the stories behind the markers.

Historians estimate that only 168 of the more than 2,000 women who participated in the picketing were actually jailed, proof of Margaret Mead’s edict — “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”