Most of these exhibits are now online, as are new offerings, such as “#19SuffrageStories,” a collaboration between the Smithsonian, the Archives and Library of Congress. But there are few places you can actually visit, which made the reopening of the Lucy Burns Museum at the Workhouse Arts Center especially poignant.
The popular narrative of women’s suffrage tends to focus on iron-willed, grandmotherly moral crusaders who steered America toward doing the right thing. It usually doesn’t discuss how a group of protesters dubbed “the Silent Sentinels” held banners outside the White House, were repeatedly arrested on charges of “obstructing traffic” and “unlawful assembly,” and sent to rat-infested cells at the Occoquan Workhouse, which later became the Lorton Correctional Complex. The story doesn’t often include details about “the Night of Terror” on Nov. 14, 1917, when 40 guards repeatedly beat, choked and assaulted the suffragists held there.
The Lucy Burns Museum, named for the co-founder of the National Women’s Party, who was arrested and sent to Lorton multiple times in 1917, opened at the former prison on January 25 after years of preparation. “We were open for five weeks, and then we were closed for three-and-a-half months,” says museum director Laura McKie. Before the closure, the museum had been open for tours five days per week, but it’s now limited to five hours on Saturday afternoons. “Many of our volunteers are seniors, and they don’t want to come back to work,” McKie says.
Still, the museum welcomes 50 to 60 visitors on an average weekend, with 10 people allowed into the two-room museum at one time for social-distancing purposes. Displays tell the story of the suffragists who were imprisoned on the site in the fall of 1917, including prison logs and historic images. There are larger-than-life-size statues of Burns, Alice Paul and Dora Lewis, a 55-year-old White House protester who was knocked out on the Night of Terror. Reproductions of jail doors are covered with photos of women sent there, with brief biographies: They were activists and seamstresses, actresses and teachers.
The museum doesn’t shy away from the brutality that the female prisoners suffered. Burns and others went on hunger strike to protest their treatment, and she wrote from jail about what happened next: “I was held down by five people at legs, arms, and head. I refused to open mouth. Dr. Gannon pushed tube up left nostril. I turned and twisted my head all I could, but he managed to push it up. It hurts nose and throat very much and makes nose bleed freely. Tube drawn out covered with blood.” When these reports reached the press, the public was horrified. Even today, the details are no less shocking.
Suffrage exhibits take up about half the building, with other areas discussing the general history of the prison, showing an array of confiscated shanks and weapons, and the site’s use as a Cold War missile defense site. An optional tour of some Lorton’s cell blocks “talks about our famous prisoners who weren’t Chuck Brown,” a docent joked on one visit — the go-go icon famously learned to play guitar while serving time after being convicted of murder — though the wooden buildings where Lucy Burns and the suffragists were held were torn down decades ago.
Last month, the Workhouse Arts Center received a grant from the national Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, allowing the museum to fund drive-in movies about “Bold Women of History” on Thursday nights in August. Upcoming films include “Suffragette,” about the struggle for suffrage in the U.K., on Aug. 20, and “A League of Their Own” on Aug. 27. The Lucy Burns Museum will be open to visitors from 6 to 8 p.m. on movie nights. (The Workhouse complex has been hosting drive-in movies in its large parking lot for much of the summer.)
But the focus of the museum remains the harrowing stories of the suffragists, their brave actions, and the brutal treatment that helped galvanize support for their cause. Between the centennial of the 19th Amendment and the protests that have roiled this country this summer, now is a perfect time to visit.
9518 Workhouse Way, Lorton. Open Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m., and Thursdays in August from 6 to 8 p.m. Free admission; tours $5.