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the battle for suffrage in the Occoquan Workhouse

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Women's Fight for Suffrage

By: Thanh Tran and Johnali Westmoreland

Protesters from the NWP picketing in front of the White House.



Women’s Suffrage is often looked over because it ended nearly 100 years ago. Some people aren’t aware of the sacrifices women made during 1840-1920 in order to gain political rights. We even often forget how the United States Government denied an entire gender the right to vote. A group of women called the National Woman’s Party, which was initially the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, challenged the government and demanded suffrage. Their acts of defiance included picketing, being present at political debates, and hosting The Women’s Suffrage Parade. While the women picketed, they would wear gold, purple, and white sashes and hold banners that read, “How long shall women wait for liberty?” and “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?” Their picketing, which would not seem very progressive, led the National Woman’s Party into a brutal situation that may have resulted in their favor.






Woman Suffrage

Policeman arresting a woman that was picketing in front of the White House.

Between June and November 1917, 218 protesters were arrested for “obstructing sidewalk traffic.” Sixteen women were taken to Occoquan Workhouse, the Virginia district prison for women, on July 14, 1917 after protesting in front of the White House. These sixteen women included the two party leaders of the National Women's Party, Lucy Burns and Alice Paul. They were sentenced to two to six months in Occoquan, rather than the three day usual punishment for other picketers. When they arrived at the jail, they were supervised by superintendent Whittaker. He would not allow them to wear their own clothes, and assigned them to do sewing and gardening work. Whittaker also enforced that their outside communication was limited.



Women holding banners that demand the government to release Alice Paul from Occoquan.


     Even in the workhouse, the women protested. They started a hunger strike, refused to wear their prison uniform, and resisted assigned work given to them by Superintendent W. H. Whittaker, who supervised them. Immediately, the prison handlers responded with brutal treatment, such as force feeding, where a tube was pushed down the prisoner's throat. Handlers would slide mixed raw eggs down the tube, but these "feedings" would usually result in the woman vomiting. The force feeding process was very painful to all of the women on the hunger strike.


     One night, later coined "The Night of Terror," turned a typical night into a gruesome memory. Forty-four prison guards abused and beat thirty-three women suffragists under Whittaker's blessing. The guards wielded clubs to beat the defenseless women. They beat Lucy Burns and chained her wrists to the cell bars above her head and left her to hang over night. They threw another suffragist into her cell, Dora Lewis, who then hit her head on an iron bed frame and was left unconscious. Alice Cosu, Dora Lewis's cell mate, thought Dora died and suffered a heart attack. Other affidavits claimed that the guards also grabbed, choked, slammed, pinched, and kicked the women which included at least one woman over seventy years old.


Inside Occoquan

Occoquan Workhouse in Occoquan, Virginia.

woman getting force fed by prison handlers 

Force feeding chair

 Alice Paul's Force Feeding cut from Iron Jawed Angels 


Map that depicts where there is Suffrage for women.

Maps and government point of view

Many politicians against Woman’s Suffrage had arguments like:

- “Women and men have ‘separate spheres’.”

- “Most women do not want the vote.”

- “Women’s role is in local affairs.”

- “Women are already represented by their husbands.”

- “It is dangerous to change a system that works.”

- “Women do not fight to defend their country


While Alice Paul was in the workhouse being force fed, Woodrow Wilson and the prison hoped for a psychiatrist to diagnose her as mentally ill. If she was decreed as insane, they could have had her institutionalized and would end her legitimacy of a Woman Suffrage leader.






Women's suffrage began over 100 years ago in the late 1840's. Women did not have the right to vote because of their gender. A group of women called the National Women's Party(NWP) chose to defy the government and demanded suffrage. During the year of 1917 the NWP picketed the white house and were arrested for "obstructing side walk traffic." They were sent to Occoquan Workhouse and treated brutally. To the government's dismay, the suffragists gained sympathy from the public many were convinced that women should, indeed have equal voting rights as men. In 1920 the nineteenth ammendment was ratified which granted women the right to vote. 

We can do it poster. (upper) 


Votes for Women picketers. (Lower)

1. Before Women's Suffrage, married women could not own any property in their own right and also couldn't legal contracts on their own behalf, that why Susan B. Anthony remained single.


2. During the 1800s-1840s women couldn't have custody of their children. According to the state law Children belonged to the husband.


3. The National Woman’s Party was the first protest group to picket the White House.


4. Katharine Hepburn’s mother was a prominent suffrage supporter from Connecticut.


5. The nineteenth amendment to the Constitution granting women the vote was passed by only one vote. Tennessee was the 36th state to ratify the Amendment, and it passed the legislature when Harry Burn, a young legislator, changed his vote to "yes" after receiving a letter from his mother telling him to "do the right thing."

Interesting Facts about Woman Suffrage  

Woman suffrage timeline (1840-1920)

Seneca Falls, New York is the location for the first Women's Rights Convention. Elizabeth Cady Stanton writes "The Declaration of Sentiments" creating the agenda of women's activism for decades to come.

The first state constitution in California extends property rights to women.

At a women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth, a former slave, delivers her now memorable speech "Ain't I a woman?"

The issue of women's property rights is presented to the Vermont Senate by Clara Howard Nichols. This is a major issue for the Suffragists.

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is published and quickly becomes a bestseller.

Women delegates, Antoinette Brown and Susan B. Anthony, are not allowed to speak at The World's Temperance Convention held in New York City.

The Married Woman’s Property Bill passes in the U.S. Congress.  Women can how sue, be sued, make contracts, inherit and bequeath property.

During the Civil War, efforts for the suffrage movement come to a halt. Women put their energies toward the war effort.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony form the American Equal Rights Association, an organization dedicated to the goal of suffrage for all regardless of gender or race.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Parker Pillsbury publish the first edition of The Revolution.  This periodical carries the motto “Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less!”

Caroline Seymour Severance establishes the New England Woman’s Club.  The “Mother of Clubs” sparked the club movement which became popular by the late nineteenth century.

In Vineland, New Jersey, 172 women cast ballots in a separate box during the presidential election.

Senator S.C. Pomeroy of Kansas introduces the federal woman’s suffrage amendment in Congress.  

Many early suffrage supporters, including Susan B. Anthony, remained single because in the mid-1800s, married women could not own property in their own rights and could not make legal contracts on their own behalf.

The Fourteenth Amendment is ratified. "Citizens" and "voters" are defined exclusively as male.

The American Equal Rights Association is wrecked by disagreements over the Fourteenth Amendment and the question of whether to support the proposed Fifteenth Amendment which would enfranchise Black American males while avoiding the question of woman suffrage entirely.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony found the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), a more radical institution, to achieve the vote through a Constitutional amendment as well as push for other woman’s rights issues.  NWSA was based in New York

Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, Julia Ward Howe and other more conservative activists form the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) to work for woman suffrage through amending individual state constitutions.  AWSA was based in Boston.

Wyoming territory is organized with a woman suffrage provision.

The Fifteenth Amendment give black men the right to vote.  NWSA refused to work for its ratification and instead the members advocate for a Sixteenth Amendment that would dictate universal suffrage.  Frederick Douglass broke with Stanton and Anthony over the position of NWSA.  

The Woman’s Journal is founded and edited by Mary Livermore, Lucy Stone, and Henry Blackwell.

Victoria Woodhull addresses the House Judiciary Committee, arguing women’s rights to vote under the fourteenth amendment.  

The Anti-Suffrage Party is founded.

Susan B. Anthony casts her ballot for Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election and is arrested and brought to trial in Rochester, New York.  Fifteen other women are arrested for illegally voting.  Sojourner Truth appears at a polling booth in Battle Creek, Michigan, demanding a ballot to vote; she is turned away.

Abigail Scott Duniway convinces Oregon lawmakers to pass laws granting a married woman’s rights such as starting and operating her own business, controlling the money she earns, and the right to protect her property if her husband leaves.

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) is founded by Annie Wittenmyer. With Frances Willard at its head (1876), the WCTU became important proponent in the fight for woman suffrage.  As a result, one of the most strong opponents to women's enfranchisement was the liquor lobby, which feared women might use their vote to prohibit the sale of liquor.

Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage disrupt the official Centennial program at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, presenting a “Declaration of Rights for Women” to the Vice President.

A Woman Suffrage Amendment is proposed in the U.S. Congress. When the 19th Amendment passes forty-one years later, it is worded exactly the same as this 1878 Amendment.  

The first vote on woman suffrage is taken in the Senate and is defeated.

The National Council of Women in the United States is established to promote the advancement of women in society.

NWSA and AWSA merge and the National American Woman Suffrage Association is formed. Stanton is the first president. The Movement focuses efforts on securing suffrage at the state level.

Wyoming is admitted to the Union with a state constitution granting woman suffrage.  

The American Federation of Labor declares support for woman suffrage.

The South Dakota campaign for woman suffrage loses.

A progressive era results. Women from all classes and backgrounds enter public life. Women's roles expand and result in an increasing politicization of women. Consequently the issue of woman suffrage becomes mainstream politics.

Olympia Brown founds the Federal Suffrage Association to campaign for woman’s suffrage.

Colorado adopts woman suffrage.

600,000 signatures are presented to the New York State Constitutional Convention in a failed effort to bring a woman suffrage amendment to the voters.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton publishes The Woman’s Bible.  After its publication, NAWSA moves to distance itself from Stanton because many conservative suffragists considered her to be too radical and, thus, potentially damaging to the suffrage campaign.

Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Frances E.W. Harper among others found the he National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.

Utah joins the Union with full suffrage for women.

Idaho adopts woman suffrage.  

Mary Dreier, Rheta Childe Dorr, Leonora O'Reilly, and others form the Women's Trade Union League of New York, an organization of middle- and working-class women dedicated to unionization for working women and to woman suffrage.

Washington State adopts woman suffrage.

The Women’s Political Union organizes the first suffrage parade in New York City.

The National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (NAOWS) is organized. Led by Mrs. Arthur Dodge, its members included wealthy, influential women, some Catholic clergymen, distillers and brewers, urban political machines, Southern congressmen, and corporate capitalists.

The elaborate California suffrage campaign succeeds by a small margin.

Woman Suffrage is supported for the first time at the national level by a major political party -- Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party.

Twenty thousand suffrage supporters join a New York City suffrage parade.

Oregon, Kansas, and Arizona adopt woman suffrage.

Alice Paul and Lucy Burns organize the Congressional Union, later known at the National Women’s Party (1916).  They borrowed strategies from the radical Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in England.

Nevada and Montana adopt woman suffrage.

The National Federation of Women’s Clubs, which had over two million women members throughout the U.S., formally endorses the suffrage campaign.

Mabel Vernon and Sara Bard Field are involved in a transcontinental tour which gathers over a half-million signatures on petitions to Congress.

Forty thousand march in a NYC suffrage parade.  Many women are dressed in white and carry placards with the names of the states they represent.

Pennsylvania, New Jersey , New York, and Massachusetts continue to reject woman suffrage.

Jeanette Rankin of Montana is the first woman elected to the House of Representatives. Woodrow Wilson states that the Democratic Party platform will support suffrage.

New York women gain suffrage.

Arkansas women are allowed to vote in primary elections.

National Woman’s Party picketers appear in front of the White House holding two banners, “Mr. President, What Will You Do For Woman Suffrage?” and “How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?”  Picketers remain stationed there permanently.

Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to Congress, is formally seated in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Alice Paul, leader of the National Woman’s Party, was put in solitary confinement in the mental ward of the prison as a way to “break” her will and to undermine her credibility with the public.

In June, arrests of the National Woman’s party picketers begin on charges of obstructing sidewalk traffic.  Subsequent picketers are sentenced to up to six months in jail.  In November, the government unconditionally releases the picketers in response to public outcry and an inability to stop National Woman’s Party picketers’ hunger strike.

Representative Rankin opens debate on a suffrage amendment in the House. The amendment passes. The amendment fails to win the required two thirds majority in the Senate.

Michigan, South Dakota, and Oklahoma adopt woman suffrage.

President Woodrow Wilson states his support for a federal woman suffrage amendment.

President Wilson addresses the Senate about adopting woman suffrage a the end of World War I.




The Senate finally passes the Nineteenth Amendment and the ratification process begins.


Affidavits: a written declaration upon oath made before an authorized official.


Amendment: A legal change or addition to a law or body of laws.


Ballot: voting in general, or a round of voting


Coined:to make; invent; fabricate


 Defiance: a refusal to obey something or someone : the act of defying someone or something


Diagnose: to determine the identity of (a disease, illness, etc.) by a medical examination:


Dismay:sudden disillusionment.


Enforced:to obtain (payment, obedience, etc.) by force or compulsion.


Picket: A person or group of people standing outside a building to protest.


Suffrage:  The right to vote or the act of voting



       Works Cited


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"American Experience: TV's Most-watched History Series." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 30 Mar.   2015





Grolier. "History of Women's Suffrage |" History of Women's Suffrage | Scholastic, n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2015. <>.


Iron Jawed Angels. Dir. Katja Von Garnier. Perf. Hilary Swank and Frances O'Connor. 2005. DVD.



Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Women's Suffrage Activists - Notable Women Suffragists." Http:// N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2015. <>.

"Lucy Burns - Imprisoned at the Occoquan Workhouse." N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.<>.


Milliken, Nancy. "The Night of Terror, November 15, 1917 Women's Right to Vote." The UCSF National Center of Excellence in Women's Health, Women's Right to Vote, the Night of Terror, Women's Suffrage, Violence against Women. University of California, San Francisco, 3 Oct. 2013. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.


National Women's Party Picketing the White House. 1917. Washington DC. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Web. <National_Women's_Party_picketing_the_White_House>.


Taylor, Alan. "100 Years Ago, The 1913 Women's Suffrage Parade." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 01 Mar. 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2015. <>.

"The Lady and the Tiger." Http:// N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 15.     <>.

"The National Archives Experience: DocsTeach." Women and the Spirit of '76. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2015. <>.

"The Women Who Suffered for Suffrage |" The Women Who Suffered for Suffrage | N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2015. <>.

"The Prison Special: One Last Push for Women's Suffrage." Mental Floss. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2015. <>.


"Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman's Party History." History. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.

"Women's Suffrage." Pinterest. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.

"Working Out Her Destiny: The Rights of the People—Women Are People. Suffrage Victory Map. 1920." Working Out Her Destiny: The Rights of the People—Women Are People. Suffrage Victory Map. 1920. The Library of Virginia, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.



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