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Kevin Ammons: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast, the show that brings you the people and projects that are bringing innovation to preservation. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. Today we join Catherine Cooper as she speaks with Laura McKie, the creator and current director of the Lucy Burns Museum at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Virginia. In this episode they talk about the women who picketed the White House in pursuit of women’s right to vote, and how these suffragists fit into the larger history of women’s suffrage in the United States
Catherine Cooper: What is the Lucy Burns Museum and why is it in Lorton?
Laura McKie: It is there for a very special reason. The prison that was built in Lorton was for the District of Columbia; in 1910, they built a men’s workhouse and in 1912 they built a women’s workhouse.
A few years later, 1917, women from the National Woman’s Party began picketing the White House in support of women’s right to vote. They were on duty in front of the White House with banners but silently standing from January until the beginning of the summer of 1917.
Up till that time, in that winter and spring, Woodrow Wilson, who was then President, was not concerned apparently about these suffragists. But right around the middle of the summer, he became more and more upset with having them there. He asked the commissioners to ask the police chief to get rid of the women. He did not want them in front of the White House. So, arrests began.
At first the women were sentenced to a couple of days in the DC jail, but since they kept coming back—this didn’t stop and the women appeared every day, every day—these sentences got heavier. They were frequently offered the opportunity to pay a fine, but no one did. They chose to take the jail sentence.
So, beginning in late summer of 1917, suffragists who were arrested began to be sent down to the women’s workhouse in Occoquan. They were sent there up to November of 1917. The last group of women came in mid-November of 1917 and they were treated horribly. While they were there, they were roughed up, they were forced to be in cells, which at other times they hadn’t been. Lucy Burns, who was one of the arrestees, was chained to the cell bars with her hands over her head all night long and that was typical of what was done.They asked for permission to be political prisoners, but they were denied that. So, they decided to go on a hunger strike. The warden did not want them to die and become martyrs to the cause, so he ordered that they be force fed. Force feeding is not a very pleasant activity: it involves putting a tube down a person’s nose, down past their throat into their stomach, and then using a funnel, raw eggs and milk were poured down into the woman’s stomach. From what was written by those who were involved, it’s a very painful process. And they did that three times a day and, in the meantime, while they were doing this, they would walk by with plates of fried chicken, apple pie, coffee and stand outside the cells, hoping the women would give up. They couldn’t see each other at this point, and they were told that all the other women had given up, but they hadn’t. So, they were using every kind of psychological and physiological things to make the women quit. But they didn’t.
Eventually, it was found out that the women were at the workhouse because they had basically been smuggled down. So, there were 32 women there and after about a week, a lawyer came down and wanted to see them. He was denied the opportunity to see them, but he got a writ and came back and was able to see the women and saw what terrible shape they were in. He then went to the courthouse in Alexandria to a federal judge and arranged for the women to be brought there on a writ of Habeas Corpus. It was a challenge to get the women there because they were in such fragile condition, and we have photographs of some of them coming out of the jail and they looked terrible.
That particular incident was so powerful, they were written up in virtually every newspaper across the country in great detail. Names were listed and how they were treated and so on.
This combined with all the other activity that was going on in support of women’s suffrage, basically forced Woodrow Wilson to go to the Congress and ask them to pass an amendment. After five tries, they actually did in 1918. Then the amendment was sent around to the states for ratification and it was ratified in August of 1920. And that’s why we are now celebrating the 100th anniversary of the enactment of the 19th amendment.
We honor the women at the workhouse for what went on in 1917 because it was so influential. And many people have said it was a turning point in the views that people had of the suffrage program.
Catherine Cooper: How is the story of the Occoquan Workhouse unique in the suffrage story in the United States and how does it fit in to the other aspects?
Laura McKie: Well, a lot of things were going on in women’s activities around the turn of the century. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who had been so in front of the movement, were passed away by the turn of the century and a new group of women came in. And they began to be active all over the United States and they proceeded in a variety of ways. The National American Woman’s Suffrage Association felt that it was most important for them to work at the state level and to go state by state.The group that Alice Paul and Lucy Burns formed was an outgrowth of that. You’ll hear me use those names, Lucy Burns and Alice Paul, frequently because they were the ones who spearheaded the activity in front of the White House. No one had ever picketed the White House and especially no woman had ever done anything like that before. It was considered outrageous.
Lucy and Alice were the co-founders, but we named the Museum after Lucy Burns because she was the only one of the two to actually be imprisoned at Lorton.
Catherine Cooper: What objects or elements did you have to work with when putting the museum together and can you tell us a bit about how they’re displayed?
Laura McKie: We relied primarily on photographs. The Library of Congress has wonderful photographs from the period of the activities of the women in front of the workhouse, of groups being attacked by visitors who were surrounding them, having their signs pulled down and stomped on, being shoved around, it became a messy thing. In the exhibit, many of these pictures are blown up to larger than life size.In addition to that, we have three beautiful larger-than-life size statues of Lucy Burns, Alice Paul and Dora Lewis. Dora Lewis was chosen because she represented one of the older women who were involved with the project. The oldest woman who was imprisoned was 72 years old and the youngest was 19.
The only real objects that we have on display that directly relate to the suffragists are the jail log books, and we’re fortunate enough to have the three logbooks that cover the dates from 1916 to 1918. These are great, heavy books, probably five inches thick and they weigh about 20 pounds each. But inside of those books in carefully written script—the script is beautiful—are the names of everyone who was arrested in the district, day by day, hour by hour, what they were charged with, where they came from, and what the disposition of their charge was; if they were sentenced, what they were sentenced to, and if they were released.
This is the place where all of the names of the women who were arrested are listed and includes the 72 women who were sent to Lorton to the workhouse. It also includes the other women who were sent to DC jail. The one that we have on display is open to the page that has the most suffragists names on it. Lucy Burns’ name is there. It lists and details all the things that happened to her while she was there. Many of them listed the name of the place where they resided as Cameron House. And Cameron House was like an office-boarding house right in Lafayette Square for women who had come to town to stand in front of the White House and picket. Women came from all over the country, but it was also Alice Pauls’ office.
Catherine Cooper: For visitors to the museum, what are the main things that you want them to take away.
Laura McKie: So, I really want them to know the bigger story, starting with the group who met in Western New York in 1848 and the intense involvement of so many thousands and thousands of women, leading up to the 1920 amendment. It was amazing. It was the largest organization that the United States has ever had.
The vast majority of women who were working toward the suffrage amendment were white women. They did come from all classes, however. But black women were not included. It was a conscious decision made on the part of the leadership. They wanted to get the South behind the project of getting the vote and they felt if they brought black women into that process, that the South would turn against them. So, they consciously decided not to include them.
However, African American women across the country were very, very active and working towards the vote. However, their view was a much broader view than the white women. The white women were narrowly focused on one thing, getting the vote. The African American women had a much broader social agenda, because although African American men had been given the vote in the 15th amendment, they, in many parts of the country were not allowed to vote under the very strict Jim Crow laws that were then in effect.
So, the African American women who were working towards suffrage, wanted to enlarge the vision to include men, but also to include the social aspects of the black community which were then so terribly benighted. So, African American women were there but not nearly so obviously.One African American woman and her daughter did, in fact, picket the White House. She was not arrested, so she’s not on our list of people. Her name is Mary Church Terrell and she’s a very, very fascinating woman who lived in Washington DC, and in her autobiography, she writes about her experiences.
The second thing to take away in my opinion is to recognize that women were willing to die for the vote, because people have died from going on hunger strikes. They went into this situation and went to jail willingly because they felt their sacrifice was sufficiently important for everyone and they were willing to do it. So, we need to honor that bravery, that commitment by voting and voting locally, voting statewide and voting nationally.
In 1920, not everyone in the United States could vote. Even though women had been given the right to vote, Native Americans couldn’t vote, Asian Americans couldn’t vote, citizens of District of Columbia and of the territories of the United States could not vote. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that everyone in the United States who was a citizen over the age of 18, could vote.
So that’s the last message that I tend to throw out to people as they leave the exhibit is, vote.
Catherine Cooper: Thank you so much.
Laura McKie: Been a pleasure. And I hope that folks will visit us digitally if not in person. We do have a website. It is workhousearts.org/LucyBurnsMuseum.
Kevin Ammons: Thank you for listening to today’s show. If you would like more information, check out our podcast, show notes at www.ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.