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'The Night of Terror': How Lorton, Virginia, played a crucial role in women's rights

Courtesy of Library of Congress
Courtesy of Library of Congress
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The year 2020 marks a century since women achieved the right to vote. But something that's now such a given was once unthinkable -- until a group of suffragists was thrown into a Fairfax County prison.

They were treated in conditions so terrible, one particularly awful night was called "The Night of Terror". And now a new museum is dedicated to remembering what they went through -- led by Lucy Burns and Alice Paul.

Laura McKie, the manager of the soon-to-be-opened Lucy Burns Museum, calls what happened there a turning point in the fight for women to vote.

The uproar began at the White House in January 1917, where suffragists became the first people to picket the White House under the administration of President Woodrow Wilson. They picketed every day of the week except Sunday through all kinds of weather until November.

The suffragists -- which were from the National Women's Party, calling themselves "Silent Sentinels" -- lived in a house on Lafayette Square, easily accessible to the White House.

"It was the National Women's Party that got the idea to picket and began to picket, which had never been done before. But they were very, very polite, didn't cause any trouble," McKie said. "The only trouble that came was from the passersby, who didn't necessarily like what they read on the signs so they ripped them down, tore them to pieces."

Wilson wasn't in favor of women having the right to vote -- nor was his wife.

"In the first months, they were tolerated by the president, Woodrow Wilson at the time," McKie said. "But later on, they started getting arrested."

The arrests started in the summer of 1917, with the women given the choice of paying a fine or going to jail – and all chose jail to make a statement.

Over the months, the women were sent to jail in Lorton, Virginia, which housed other inmates the middle- and upper-class suffragists seldom encountered.

"They didn't like it because they were imprisoned with basically prostitutes and pickpockets and women they had never associated with before," McKie said.

She says the women were sentenced to hard labor and brutal conditions -- but it wasn't until November 10th, 1917, the so-called "Night of Terror," that conditions became dire.

Around 30 women were arrested at the White House and brought to the jail, where the prison warden was determined to send a message.

"He was incensed," McKie said. "And so he basically let the officers who were there bodily pick these women up, carry them to cells, throw them in cells."

At one point, Burns, the group's leader, tried to call roll. Instead, officers forced her to stand all night in her unheated cell with her hands handcuffed over her head -- wearing only a slip.

"There was another woman 72 years old and slightly crippled – and she was literally thrown into a cell. She hit her head, and it knocked her out," McKie said. "And the other woman who was also in the cell with her thought she had been killed, and she had a heart attack."

The women went on hunger strikes for days-- prepared to die for the right to vote.

"They were threatened with violence if they didn't eat," McKie said. "Other times, they would come by with a platter full of food -- potatoes and gravy and chicken, fried chicken. And they would stand in front of the cell with this, and smells would just waft over them."

The officers, determined to prevent the women from becoming martyrs, began to force feed them.

At first, the women were excluded from legal counsel. McKie says it took five days before officers got an order to allow attorneys inside the prison.

The women were finally released after the lawyers submitted a writ of habeas corpus on how badly they were being treated. The court eventually found it was illegal for the women to be jailed in Virginia when they were sentenced in DC, so they were released.

News of their treatment, however, made national headlines-- inspiring men and women to speak out.

"This got enormous publicity across the country, and the suffragists milked it for all they could get," McKie said.

She said President Wilson was left with no choice but to go to Congress, and ask lawmakers to pass an amendment, giving women the right to vote.

"People were writing in from all over the country, 'What are you doing with these women?' And so he finally -- I think against his will -- just had to bend to the will of the people," McKie said.

Finally, in 1919, the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote went to the states -- achieving ratification in August of 2020 -- just three years after the "Night of Terror".

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The Lucy Burns Museum is set to open its doors this summer at the Occoquan Workhouse. For more information, here's a link to the website.

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