1917 November 15

“Night of Terror:” Suffragists Brutalized in Washington, D.C. Workhouse


Suffragists, led by Alice Paul, had been arrested for picketing the White House in support of a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. See Paul’s arrest on October 20, 1917. While in jail, Paul and some others conducted a hunger strike. They were force-fed, and Paul was transferred to the psychiatric ward. On November 10th, a large group of women conducted a protest of Paul and the other inmates. Thirty-one women were arrested, and on this day were brutalized at the Washington, D.C., Occoquan Workhouse by guards who were ordered by the warden to “teach the women a lesson.”

Among those seriously injured were Dorothy Day, who helped establish the Catholic Worker movement, and Lucy Burns, who helped Paul found the National Woman’s Party. (See the link below for information on the historic workhouse, more often known today by the name Lorton.)

Alice Paul had launched her campaign of picketing of the White House on March 3, 1913, and the effort intensified in 1917 (see January 10, 1917; April 2, 1917; and August 11, 1917). The militant tactics, which alienated more moderate suffragist activists, eventually paid off. President Woodrow Wilson reversed his position and announced his support for a woman’s suffrage amendment on January 9, 1918; and on August 18, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote was ratified. Women voted for the first time in all state and federal elections, including the presidential election, on November 2, 1920.

Alice Paul is also famous for drafting and introducing the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have granted equality to women (July 21, 1923). The ERA was voted on several times in the 1940s and 1950s, but never secured the required number of votes for a proposed Constitutional amendment. In a very different political climate, it passed Congress on March 22, 1972, and was sent to the states for ratification. After quickly securing a number of state ratifications, however, it ran into fierce neo-conservative opposition and died.

Read about Alice Paul: Mary Walton, A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot (2010)

Watch a short video on Alice Paul: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjYtacfcgPU

Watch the film about Alice Paul and her protests: Iron Jawed Angels (2004) (with Hilary Swank as Alice Paul)

Learn more about the historic Occoquan/Lorton workhouse: http://workhousemuseums.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=5&Itemid=8

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