Occoquan Regional Park
Adjacent to this park a group of women was imprisoned in 1917 for demanding the right to vote. The road to Occoquan Workhouse had started in 1848.
In July 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention in New York, officially opening the American women's rights movement, a controversial resolution was adopted: "Resolved, which is the duty of women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise." Elizabeth Cady Stanton was able to get the resolution passed only with the help of Frederick Douglas, the former slave and famous abolitionist orator. For many years progress was slow and as late as 1913 women had full suffrage only in nine states and the territory of Alaska which had no presidential electors.
Marking a dramatic change in the polite crusade for votes for women, the National Woman's Party, founded in 1916 by Alice Paul, adopted the strategy of holding the party in power responsible for the success or failure of woman suffrage. Attempting to persuade President Wilson and the Democratic Party to support actively the Susan B. Anthony amendment, first proposed in 1878, the National Woman's Party began to picket the White House in 1917. Beginning in June 1917 scores of women were arrested, found guilty of unlawful assemble, sentenced to pay a fine of $25, or serve a term in jail. Preferring jail rather than paying what they considered to be unjust fines, the women were given sentences ranging from 30 to 60 days and in some instance 6 months. Some went to D.C. Jails the majority were sent to Occoquan Workhouse, now Lorton Reformatory, Lorton, Virginia.
Among those arrested were graduates of distinguished educational institutions, students, teachers, nurses, at least two physicians, a geologist, and a professor of history. The socially prominent included Lucy Ewing, niece of Adlai Stevenson, Vice President under Cleveland. The youngest arrested was 19 and the oldest to serve at Occoquan was 73. She found scrubbing floors almost beyond her strength.
The women had their mail withheld, were confronted with unwashed blankets, contaminated food, forced into prison dress and ordered to perform prison work. Protesting the poor treatment and general state of prison conditions, the women insisted they were political prisoners and should be treated accordingly. Some refused to work, were put in solitary confinement and given bread and water. Others, led by Lucy Burns of the Executive Committee of the National Woman's Party, went on a hunger strike and were force-fed. As news of the extreme treatment given the suffrage prisoners began to emerge, public indignation and demands for an investigation of conditions finally forced their release late in 1917. Upon appeal, the sentences of the women imprisoned at Occoquan were reversed in 1918.
By August 26, 1920, the Susan B. Anthony amendment was ratified, ending a struggle for basic political rights that had lasted for 72 years. The woman suffrage prisoners at Occoquan had contributed significantly to that victory.
Sixty-five years after imprisonment, recognition was finally given these women. On March 6, 1982, under the leadership of Joseph T. Flakne and the auspices of the League of Women Voters of Fairfax, a handsome marker commemorating them was unveiled on route 123, near Youth Center No.2. The commonwealth of Virginia ratified the amendment giving women the right to vote in February 1952.
Evelyn L. Pugh
Professor of History
George Mason University
Sidebar under the right picture:
Alice Paul designed the jail door pin as a symbol of appreciation for the women who had been imprisoned.