In 1917, a group of women peacefully protested outside the White House with signs that read of their desire to vote. Instead of their protest being met with a sense of understanding, these women were arrested and taken to a dilapidated workhouse some twenty miles south in Virginia.
This night of November 14, 1917, turned into something reserved for a Hollywood horror. The guards were ordered to punish the suffragist women for daring to nuisance President Woodrow Wilson in the attempt of convincing him for their right to vote. With bats and metal bars, the prison guards acted like a gang of inhumane savages and bludgeoned 30 plus women. These women’s heads were rammed into iron bars, their hands and arms chained from above to leave them hanging throughout the night, and some were dragged by their hair between cells only to witness their cohorts being strangled, pleading for air. No amount of screaming would suffice, yet, no pain would silence them either.
Alice Paul, one of the suffragists who led the movement, decided to stand for another protest after weeks of the women only receiving water and maggot-infested food – she refused to eat. Because of this, she was tortured ever more so until some weeks later the press was tipped off as to what “might” be happening at the Occoquan, VA workhouse.
Once the word from the press became an actual news story, Woodrow Wilson tried to have a psychiatrist diagnose Alice Paul as mentally insane, but the doctor wouldn’t agree to it. The doctor saw that the women and Ms. Paul were only standing up for something they believed in and how it had nothing to do with being irrational or crazy. The doctor claimed that Paul had “a spirit like Joan of Arc and she will die before one can change it.”
As time went by, the states eventually endorsed women’s rights to vote and positions began to shift. It is in our best interest, for the sake of preserving our history and the American way in general, that we do not forget where the commencement of such liberties was pioneered.
You can visit the workhouse, which now operates as the Workhouse Arts Center, at 9518 Workhouse Rd, Lorton, VA, 22079. Today, it is better known as a cultural arts center housing the works of professional and emerging artists.
You can follow Dan Fecht on Twitter: @realdanfecht