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Commemorating a “Turning Point” in Women’s History

Suffragists’ Confinement at the Occoquan Workhouse

By Carla Christiano, Contributing Writer 

photo by Imagewerks
photo by Imagewerks

Most of us have heard of the suffragists. Their seven decades-long struggle to win American women the right to vote has made it into the history books.

Yet there is a little-known chapter to that story that hits much closer to home for Prince William residents. In fact, it was just over the Occoquan River at a dismal place called the Occoquan Workhouse where a number of suffragists were imprisoned. Now the site of Fairfax County’s water treatment facility, the women’s workhouse, which closed in the 1960s, was located across Route 123 from present-day Occoquan Regional Park and down the road from the Workhouse Arts Center, which was created from the remaining prison facilities.

“People don’t know about this very important thing that happened right across the river. They drive past it every day. …

They know about the other history in the county like the Civil War, but not everyone knows about this story,” said Betty Dean, an Occoquan resident and member of the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial (TPSM) Committee, which is working with the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority to raise funds to erect a memorial commemorating these women.

Dean and an intrepid group of 34 volunteers from throughout the region have begun their own struggles to make this suffragist story known nationwide. TPSM committee chairperson Jane Barker of Fairfax County said the suffragists’ story reaches beyond the area. “It’s not just local history, but national history,” she said.

Begun around 2007 as an initiative of the League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area and the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, the committee hopes to have a memorial built on a two-acre site in Occoquan Regional Park “to honor and memorialize the struggle that went on here,” said Dean. The goal is to raise $7 million to $9 million for the project, which they hope to complete by 2020—the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote.

Struggling for the Vote

Many of us today don’t think twice about being able to vote. Even in the polarized 2012 election, when many in Prince William County faced long lines to cast their votes, only about 71 percent of registered voters in the county actually voted, down from 84 percent in 1992. More than half, or about 54 percent, of those who voted in the 2012 election were women.

But in 1913—only 100 years ago—it was a different story. No woman in the Commonwealth of Virginia had the right to vote. In fact, only a handful of states allowed women to vote, despite more than 60 years of lobbying by women suffragist groups led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

“Women’s rights kept being put on the back burner. Whenever things got hard for the country, [suffragists] would back off, but the new generation led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns said, ‘No,’ we’re not going to do that,” said Occoquan Regional Park Manager John Houser, who serves on the TPSM Board of Directors as a liaison for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. Fed up with the long process of gaining individual state recognition, Paul and Burns worked on getting national recognition and sometimes went to extreme measures.

On the eve of President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, March 3, 1913, then 28-year-old Paul organized more than 5,000 women to march through Washington, D.C. Although a crowd, estimated at 500,000 people, jeered at and threatened these suffragists, the women refused to back down. About 100 marchers were taken to a local hospital after being injured by the angry throng surrounding the suffragists.

“… when we shall have our amendment to the Constitution of the United States, everyone will think it was always so, just exactly as many young people believe that all the privileges, all the freedom, all the enjoyments which woman now possesses were always hers. They have no idea of how every single inch of ground that she stands upon to-day [sic] has been gained by the hard work of some little handful of women of the past.” –Susan B. Anthony (source: Dictionary.com)

Four years later, starting in January 1917, Paul, Burns and other members of their National Women’s Party staged protests outside the White House in an effort to galvanize the public. At first, people ignored the silent sentinels, as they became known, which included protesters holding up banners with slogans, such as  “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?” The women protested all day and night, in all kinds of weather.

When America entered World War I that April, the public mood toward the protesters changed. Seen as unpatriotic for protesting outside the White House at a time of war, they were often harassed verbally and physically. Newspapers at the time even said the women’s demonstrations exposed President Wilson to potential assassins.

Starting in June 1917, the protesters were arrested on various charges, such as unlawful assembly or obstructing traffic. They were given light sentences at first to dissuade them from further demonstrations.  When that didn’t work, and the protests continued, the sentences became longer and harsher, with fines of $25 (which would be about $348 today) or 30- to 60-day jail terms becoming increasingly common. Paul was sentenced three times, receiving jail terms of up to seven months. When suffragists refused to pay fines and chose jail, they were sentenced to either the D.C. jail or the Occoquan Workhouse, a prison farm the D.C. penal system operated.

Life in the Occoquan Workhouse

Conditions at the workhouse were poor even by the standards of the time. Suffragist Doris Stevens described the facility, located on more than a thousand acres in Lorton and almost 20 miles from Washington, D.C., as being in “a wilderness. It is a deserted country. Even the gayest member of the party, I am sure, was struck with a little terror here.”

Although the suffragists expected plain fare and Spartan conditions, what they found were cold, unsanitary cells and worm-infested food. From July to November 1917, more than 70 suffragists were sent to the workhouse as a result of their protests. They ranged in age from 19 to 73 and came from dozens of states. Some were recent immigrants, and others were from well-established, politically connected families. One inmate, Alison Turnbull Hopkins, had even attended a dinner with her husband at the White House, and had supported President Wilson politically and financially. Many were college- educated and married, and included nurses, teachers, social workers, physicians and a geologist.

“There were a lot of great strong women. They came from all over the country, from all walks of life,” said Barker.

To protest the poor conditions at the workhouse, some suffragists (including Burns at the workhouse and Paul in the D.C. jail) 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. Imprisoned suffragists also endured at least one brutal attack in a night of beatings by prison guards, under the direction of the prison superintendent (Nov. 14, 1917, known as the “Night of Terror”).

LUCY WOODEN: Prince William County Voting Pioneer The first woman to register to vote in Prince William County was 64-year-old Nokesville resident Lucy Wooden. Wooden was born in Warrenton in 1856 and employed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing for almost 30 years. Although not a suffragist, Wooden was among 633 white women and 33 black women in the county who registered to vote in 1920 after the 19th amendment was ratified. Registering was not an easy process. Like the men, the women had to meet a residency requirement and pay a non-refundable capitation tax of $1.50 to the county treasurer (at a time when the average farm worker was paid $2.82 a day, according to the Economic History Associa- tion). They were also required to pass a literacy test. Both the tax and test were eliminated nationwide in the 1960s.

Supporters look over plans for the future suffragists memorial. Photo by Imagewerks
Supporters look over plans for the future suffragists memorial.
Photo by Imagewerks

Although the suffragists were isolated from the outside world, news leaked out about their treatment. As a result of public outcry, the remaining 16 imprisoned suffragists were finally released from the workhouse by the end of November 1917. Yet it would be almost two more years (with many protests) before Congress passed the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote. During that time, more than 200 women would be incarcerated for protesting. Two-thirds of the states finally ratified the 19th amendment by Aug. 18, 1920, when Tennessee’s state legislature provided the final ratification necessary to enact it.

“This is one of those unknown events. It impacted one-half of the population, but no one knows about it. The work that these women did set a precedent for equal rights, but they’re not recognized,” Houser said. “These were women who were not supposed to be out in the streets. It was totally improper for them to do this. … It’s not just that they got the right to vote; it’s the story of social change. It’s about women taking control of their destiny,” he said.

Houser sees the suffragists’ story as impacting young women of today, and as a father of two daughters, he said the story resonates with him. “We want to tell young women that there are no limits—that they can be president,” he said. Houser added that young women today often take for granted the opportunities they have and many don’t realize the sacrifices their predecessors made. “An 18-year-old woman doesn’t vote because she takes it for granted. [Young women] need to know about the 22-year-old woman who had tubes stuck down her throat [as a result of fighting for] the right to vote,” he said.

Turning Point Suffragist Memorial

In 2007, Occoquan Regional Park officials at first decided the park would erect interpretative panels describing the suffragists’ history at the Occoquan Workhouse. However, following brainstorming sessions with community members, park officials chose to expand the project from a few panels to a memorial, according to Houser. “It takes as much time and energy to put up a small memorial as a large memorial,” he explained. The change wasn’t in the concept, only in the scale, and it doesn’t change what they want to achieve, he added.

In the brainstorming sessions, participants used “turning point” among terms to describe the suffragist experience. What happened at the workhouse “was a real turning point in women’s history,” Houser said. He credited Barker’s leadership for moving the project forward, and the countless hours volunteers have dedicated to it. Barker is also former chairperson of the TPSM Board of Directors.

One volunteer, photographer Kathy Strauss of Lake Ridge, said there are memorials throughout the country honoring efforts to win women the right to vote, but there’s not a national one dedicated to this particular fight. She recalled a trip she made to Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, for business and seeing beautiful bronze statues dedicated to the Canadian women’s right to vote. “They have it, and we don’t. That, I’m sorry to say, hurt. We should have had this a long time ago,” she said.

Although the committee has unveiled an elaborate design for the memorial that includes a cascading waterfall and meditation garden, the group’s focus goes beyond the site. “Once we build the memorial, we will create programs to use it as a focal point to stimulate conversation as to what it means to engage in self- government, and what it means if you don’t,” said Dean. The education programs will create an ongoing dialog on how to be civically engaged, what that means and what the responsibilities are.  She said the site could offer symposiums “to make it be a living thing and not just a point on the map.”

One challenge the committee faces is attracting support, Dean said. So members will work to launch a national campaign,  along with a regionally focused effort, to garner support. Committee members hope to involve large corporations that focus on women, including cosmetic companies and foundations that specialize in civil engagement.

“Although the memorial will be on the other side of the river, it will have a positive impact on the area. … This will play an important role in attracting people [to Prince William]. It’s in Prince William’s best interest that this project be a great success.

The memorial itself will belong to the region and not just to that little piece of the park,” said Dean.

Visit www.suffragistmemorial.org for more information about the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial.

Carla Christiano is a native of Prince William County, admitted history geek and a technical writer for Unisys. She can be reached at

[email protected].

At 7 p.m. on March 14 at the Old Manassas Courthouse, Irma Clifton from the Lorton Workhouse Museum will present a free lecture about the suffragists and the Workhouse in Lorton/Occoquan in the early 20th Century. For more information, contact David M. Born at 703-792-5618.

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