The women were clubbed, beaten and tortured by the guards at the Occoquan Workhouse. The 33 suffragists from the National Woman’s Party had been arrested Nov. 10, 1917, while picketing outside the White House for the right to vote.
The male guards at the Northern Virginia prison manacled the party’s co-founder Lucy Burns by her hands to the bars above her cell and forced her to stand all night. Dorothy Day, who would later establish the Catholic Worker houses, had her arm twisted behind her back and was slammed twice over the back of an iron bench.
The guards threw suffragist Dora Lewis into a dark cell and smashed her head against an iron bed, knocking her out. Lewis’s cellmate, Alice Cosu, believing Lewis dead, suffered a heart attack and was denied medical care until the next morning.
The suffragists dubbed their treatment Nov. 14, 1917, as the “Night of Terror,” and it helped galvanize public support of the suffrage movement.
On Friday, there will be a Washington reenactment of the picketing 100 years ago that led to the “Night of Terror.” But it is so little known today that the debunking website, snopes.com, felt compelled to weigh in on whether it actually happened.
At Occoquan, rats ran in and out of the unlit cells. The prisoners held contests to count the number of maggots in their food. And the prison denied the women a most basic human dignity – their privacy.
“In the morning we were taken one by one to a washroom at the end of the hall,” Day recalled in her memoir, “The Long Loneliness.” “There was a toilet in each cell, open, and paper and flushing were supplied by the guard. It was as though one were in a zoo with the open bars leading into the corridor.”
Prison officials denied the protesters counsel. Many began hunger strikes. And Occoquan superintendent W.H. Whittaker, who had ordered the beatings, called for Marines to guard the compound.
From the beginning of Woodrow Wilson’s second term, National Woman’s Party members, known as the Silent Sentinels in distinctive purple, white and gold sashes, surrounded the White House in wordless protest. Their banners attempted to prick the president’s conscience, often charging him with hypocrisy.
One banner read, “Kaiser Wilson, have you forgotten your sympathy with the poor Germans because they were not self-governed? 20,000,000 American women are not self-governed. Take the beam out of your own eye.”
By 1916, only nine states had given women the right to vote. For the National Woman’s Party, led by Alice Paul, the progress on suffrage was too slow. They demanded a constitutional amendment to make the vote a national right. Wilson, a Democrat, supported women’s suffrage at the state level, but opposed a national amendment.
“What was militant about the NWP was that no group had ever picketed the White House before,” said Jennifer Krafchik, executive director of the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, the party’s former headquarters that now serves as its museum. “They used Wilson’s words against him in their banners. Nobody had ever seen this before especially in a group of women. They were much more aggressive than any other suffragette group.”
The Silent Sentinels highlighted their diversity with themed days. On state days, such as Maryland Day, the marchers all came from Maryland. On College Day, pickets represented 13 colleges. Other days highlighted women in professions such as Teachers Day.
Initially, passersby viewed the marchers with curiosity and sympathy, and the White House tolerated their presence. In April, after the U.S. entered World War I, the public mood changed.
“The NWP was not going to stop protesting simply because we were at war. They held Woodrow Wilson up as a pinnacle of democracy abroad but not at home,” Krafchik said. “By June, crowds were getting incensed at what they saw as unpatriotic actions by these women.”
The police warned the women that they would be arrested if they continued. Nevertheless, they persisted. The first arrests were in June – three-day sentences, mostly for “obstructing the sidewalk.” The judges fined the picketers $25, which they refused to pay. After serving the three days, the women returned to their sites in front of the White House. But the women arrested in August were sentenced to 60 days – at Occoquan.
By November, several picketers had been arrested multiple times, and Whittaker had lost patience. The suffragists demanded to be considered political prisoners, a distinction that could possibly mean better treatment at the D.C. Jail instead of Occoquan.
Paul had been arrested in October and taken to the D.C. Jail, where she went on a hunger strike. Doctors force-fed her twice a day with a tube down her throat – a process that caused her to vomit repeatedly. William Alanson White, the superintendent of St. Elizabeths Hospital, interviewed her in a vain attempt to have her committed. White found Paul to be sane and “perfectly calm, yet determined.”
The suffragists had one key sympathizer in the Wilson White House. Dudley Field Malone, an attorney who had been a Wilson campaign adviser, was the collector of import duties. He was also married to suffragist Doris Stevens, an Occoquan detainee, and resigned his position to represent the Silent Sentinels in court. And Stevens’s jailhouse correspondence about the ordeal led to reporting of it in the party newsletter, the Suffragist, outraging others in the movement and galvanizing public opinion in their favor.
By Nov. 28, two weeks after the “Night of Terror,” both Paul and the Occoquan prisoners were out on bail. In March 1918, the D.C. Court of Appeals declared that all the suffragist arrests had been unconstitutional.
Doris Stevens would publish her account of the Silent Sentinels, “Jailed for Freedom,” in 1920. In the preface, she wrote:
“There are two ways in which this story might be told. It might be told as a tragic and harrowing tale of martyrdom. Or it might be told as a ruthless enterprise of compelling a hostile administration to subject women to martyrdom in order to hasten its surrender. The truth is, it has elements of both ruthlessness and martyrdom.”
She added emphatically: “But it was never martyrdom for its own sake. It was martyrdom used for a practical purpose.”
That practical purpose came to pass on Aug. 18, 1920, when the 19th amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote.
This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the country ratified the 19th amendment on Aug. 18, 1920.
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