by Katherine: When we tell our children about the fight for women’s suffrage in America…
we often tell a sanitized version of the story. We talk about letter-writing campaigns, activist conferences, and stirring speeches — and occasionally, we mention defiant suffragists being hauled to jail. But we often shy away from the darker truths about the sacrifices and suffering many suffragists had to endure in the fight for women’s right to vote.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of one especially notorious event, the “Night of Terror,” when 33 suffragists from the National Women’s Party, who had been arrested for protesting outside of the White House, were brutally beaten and tortured at the Occoquan Workhouse, a prison in northern Virginia. For many of the women, the physical and psychological consequences of their harrowing experience on the night of November 14, 1917 would be lifelong. Their stories horrified the nation, galvanizing public support for the Women’s Suffrage Movement and bringing new momentum which helped pass the 19th Amendment, recognizing women’s right to vote, three years later. The freedom to vote, however, had come at a cost, and that cost was borne in part by these women.
To mark the anniversary of the Night of Terror, A Mighty Girl is telling its story, so that people who were unaware of this ugly part of women’s rights history can see just one example of what activists had to sacrifice during the decades-long fight for women’s right to vote. While it is a painful story to tell and to hear, it is crucial that we remember — so that we use our right to vote well, and so that we never allow ourselves to lose ground for which so many women fought so hard.
A MOVEMENT IN TRANSITION
In the early 1900s, the Women’s Suffrage Movement was at a crossroads. Decades had passed since the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, at which the Declaration of Sentiments, drafted by early suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was signed by attendees, declaring that the “inalienable right to the elective franchise” was one of the key rights being denied to women. Many activists felt that the movement had stalled and the suffragists were increasingly split between those who wanted to work incrementally, securing support for women’s suffrage state by state, and others who believed that a constitutional amendment granting women’s suffrage was the only way to push the cause forward.
Into this divide came young activists, many of them inspired by the British suffragettes, who were ready to take more radical steps in their fight for the vote. One of the most famous was Alice Paul, who returned from England in 1910; during her time there, she had joined the militant suffragettes in their protests, and had even been jailed and force fed while on hunger strikes. However, she had also seen the effectiveness of the suffragettes’ tactics in bringing attention to their cause.
Together with her friend and colleague Lucy Burns, Paul was determined to reignite the fight for a constitutional amendment granting women’s suffrage. Their first major event, a suffrage parade held the day before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, received national attention when spectators in the largely male crowd attacked the marchers. Although over 100 women had to be hospitalized for injuries, the women refused to give up and completed the march. Historians credit the 1913 parade for inspiring a new wave of interest in the Women’s Suffrage Movement, especially among a new generation of activists.
With Paul and her supporters continuing to push for the use of such high-visibility and often controversial tactics, tensions continued to grow between the younger organizers and long-time leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1916, an official split occurred when Paul and Burns broke off to form the National Women’s Party (NWP). The NWP put its full attention on securing the passage of a constitutional amendment, and were willing to use confrontational tactics to bring attention to women’s suffrage. The NWP held “watchfires,” where they burned copies of Wilson’s speeches, as well as marches and other protests. But they knew that further action was needed to advance their cause.
In January 1917, the NWP took the controversial step of picketing outside the White House — the first time any group had done so. The “Silent Sentinels” held banners and signs that were deliberately intended to provoke; when the Russian delegation visited the White House, one of them read, “We, the women of America, tell you that America is not a democracy. Twenty million American women are denied the right to vote. President Wilson is the chief opponent of their national enfranchisement.”
Although initially many people thought of the Silent Sentinels as a joke or a curiosity, public sentiment changed after the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917. “The NWP was not going to stop protesting simply because we were at war,” explained Jennifer Krafchik, executive director of the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument. “They held Woodrow Wilson up as a pinnacle of democracy abroad but not at home. By June, crowds were getting incensed at what they saw as unpatriotic actions by these women.” At times, onlookers would rip the signs out of the women’s hands and even beat the women picketing, while the police looked on.
While the protesters were tolerated at first, after war was declared, the police began arresting the women on the charge of obstructing traffic. Undeterred, the protest continued every day and night, except Sundays, with new women coming to picket when others were sent to prison. Paul was among those arrested, and she was sentenced to a seven-month jail term starting in October. In protest of the horrific conditions at the District Jail, she began a hunger strike which led the jail authorities to force feed her raw eggs by forcing a tube down her throat twice a day. They also attempted to have Paul committed against her will to a psychiatric hospital; the hospital superintendent William Alanson White, however, refused to admit her, stating that she was sane and “perfectly calm, yet determined.”
The harsh treatment of Paul infuriated her fellow suffragists who continued to picket the White House, while also protesting Paul’s imprisonment. They demanded that the imprisoned suffragists be considered political prisoners, a distinction that could mean better treatment. Most suffragists were being held at Occoquan, where rats ran freely in and out of unlit cells, the food was infested with maggots, and prisoners were denied counsel. With tensions so high, the suffragists knew that arrests would no doubt continue. They did not, however, expect what would happen on November 14, 1917.
THE NIGHT OF TERROR
By November, many of the Silent Sentinels had been repeatedly arrested and Occoquan superintendent W.H. Whittaker was frustrated. On November 14, he ordered the nearly 40 male guards to “teach the women a lesson.” The guards attacked the 33 women with clubs, brutalizing them and throwing them into cells. According to affidavits taken during a later investigation, women were dragged, choked, pinched, and kicked — and some women received even worse treatment. They twisted Dora Lewis’ arm behind her back and slammed her into a iron bed twice before leaving her unconscious on the floor. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, believed that Lewis was dead and suffered a heart attack, but she was denied medical treatment until the next morning. Dorothy Day, who later co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, was slammed repeatedly over the back of an iron bench.
After she started a roll call from her cell to check in on her fellow prisoners, Lucy Burns was identified as the group’s ringleader. When she refused the guards’ orders to stop the roll call, they handcuffed her arms to the cell bars above her head, leaving her standing bleeding all night. In solidarity, other women stood holding their arms above their own heads until she was released.
After the Night of Terror, the women refused to eat for three days; the guards tried to tempt the women to eat with fried chicken, which Burns considered an insult: “They think there is nothing in our souls above fried chicken.” As the hunger strike continued, Whittaker began to fear that one of the prisoners would die, leading to even more negative publicity, so he ordered Burns to be removed to another jail, where she too was force fed. She was held down by five people as a tube was forced through her nostril, a practice which caused painful, severe nosebleeds. Burns ultimately served more jail time than any other American suffragist.
Reflecting on these horrific events years later, Paul observed: “Seems almost unthinkable now, doesn’t it? It was shocking that a government of men could look with such extreme contempt on a movement that was asking nothing except such a simple little thing as the right to vote.”
AFTERMATH & VICTORY
When the suffragists outside Occoquan learned about the Night of Terror, they were determined to make it public. They had an important ally in the Wilson White House who helped make it possible: Dudley Field Malone, an attorney who served as a campaign adviser to Wilson, resigned his political post so he could represent the Silent Sentinels in court. Malone, who later married Doris Stevens, one of the Occoquan prisoners, also passed on her jailhouse letters about the ordeal to the party newsletter, The Suffragist. Once the story broke, it received broad coverage in the media, outraging many readers and contributing to the growing public support of the suffragists’ cause.
Malone’s work in court paid off in late November, when a hearing into the arrests was ordered; on November 27 and 28, all of the suffragists were released from prison. The women spoke widely about their experiences and brought the attention of the world to the struggle for women’s rights in America. The women also appealed their convictions for “unlawful assembly” for “obstructing the sidewalk” in front of the White House and the case went before the D.C. Court of Appeals in January 1918. Although the Night of Terror wasn’t even mentioned during the trial, the three judges nevertheless issued a unanimous decision that every one of the women had been illegally arrested, illegally convicted, and illegally imprisoned.
Following their release from prison, the former detainees joined their fellow activists in their on-going protests at the White House and continued their organizing work calling for a constitutional amendment. In total, the Silent Sentinels picketed six days a week in front of the White House for two and a half years, with nearly 2,000 women participating in the vigil at different times. All of the negative press attention around the suffragists’ arrests and brutal treatment finally drove Wilson to act. In January 1918, Wilson declared that women’s suffrage was urgently needed as a “war measure” and called on Congress to act. The next year, the Senate passed the suffrage amendment, which began a state-by-state fight to secure ratification by state legislatures. At long last, the 19th Amendment — declaring that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” — was adopted on August 18, 1920.
When the amendment was finally ratified, little credit was given to the NWP or to the women who had to suffer such brutal treatment in the pursuit of the right to vote, even though, according to scholar Belinda A. Stillion Southard, “the campaign of the NWP was crucial toward securing the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.” Following its passage, many of the NWP’s leading activists continued to right for women’s rights and other social justice causes, including Alice Paul who later co-authored the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Others felt they simply had no more to give — including Burns, who never fully physically recovered from the Night of Terror and reportedly said, “I don’t want to do anything more. I think we have done all this for women, and we have sacrificed everything we possessed for them, and now let them fight for it now. I am not going to fight anymore.”
Today, too many people have forgotten — or have never learned — the story of the Night of Terror. The Occoquan Workhouse, which was later renamed the Lorton Reformatory, closed in 2001 but it will soon have a new life as the Lucy Burns Museum so this important history will not be lost. Renovations to the building began in June 2016, and planned exhibits include several in memory of the suffragists and their sacrifices. Most importantly, we must teach our children what the suffragists had to do in order to win the rights and privileges that we take for granted today, recalling that this one horrific night was just one day in a struggle which lasted for over 70 years. A Mighty Girl honors the memory of these brave women by doing our part to share their story, and we encourage you to do the same. To make it easier, we have showcased a variety of books and films for all ages below telling the stories of these heroic women.
BOOKS & FILMS ABOUT THE 20TH CENTURY SUFFRAGISTS
Below you’ll find a variety of books and films for all ages about these courageous leaders of the ‘final push’ to win women’s suffrage. For books for young readers about the early days of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, check out our blog post How Women Won the Vote: Teaching Kids About the U.S. Suffrage Movement and the Suffrage section of our Women’s History Collection.