The Lucy Burns Museum: Shedding light on a dark episode in the history of women’s suffrage

By Joanna Wendel

August 18, 2020 marked the centennial of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which granted women in the United States the right to vote. The amendment marked the culmination of decades of peaceful activism by suffragists. Yet few people realize that some women endured violence in their quest for the vote.

In 1917, Lucy Burns and a group of fellow suffragists suffered brutal treatment in prison, endangering their lives and health for the sake of the cause they championed. The newly-opened Lucy Burns Museum in Lorton, VA tells the overlooked story of these women, whose harrowing experience in prison—the so-called “Night of Terror”—helped turn the tide in favor of women’s suffrage.

The night in question occurred at the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, which served as a prison until 2001. The entire complex has since been converted into the multi-disciplinary Workhouse Arts Center. The Lucy Burns Museum is the latest addition to the Center, and offers a fascinating glimpse into the shocking treatment that a group of women received as they fought for suffrage.


Lucy Burns’ fight for suffrage

American-born Lucy Burns (1879–1966) became an activist for women’s suffrage while living in the United Kingdom. In 1909, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, an organization that agitated for women’s rights in the UK. Under the fiery leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst, the WSPU used attention-grabbing acts of civil disobedience to advocate for its aims. Burns and others were arrested and jailed repeatedly for their disruptive protests. In prison, they engaged in hunger strikes and endured painful force-feeding.

In the UK, Burns met Alice Paul, another American devoted to women’s suffrage. Burns and Paul returned to the United States, where they were frustrated by the more cautious approach of American suffragists. In 1916, the two women co-founded the National Woman’s Party. They vowed to adopt the uncompromising attitude of their colleagues in the UK, but committed themselves to non-violent methods of protest.

In January 1917, Burns and other members of the NWP began picketing the White House continuously. These “Silent Sentinels” displayed banners rebuking President Woodrow Wilson for failing to support their cause. Although Wilson supported women’s suffrage at the state level, he opposed the protestors’ demand for a national amendment.


One terrible night

The Silent Sentinels began to attract controversy when the United States entered World War I in April 1917. They were increasingly criticized as unpatriotic, and angry counter-protestors even ripped apart their banners. In an effort to deter the protestors, police began to arrest them periodically for “obstructing traffic.” At first, the protestors were given brief sentences, but soon they were sent to Occoquan for weeks at a time.

On November 13, 1917, Burns and about 30 other women were arrested in front of the White House. By the following day, many were transported to Occoquan, about 20 miles from Washington, DC, where they endured a night of merciless treatment by prison guards. Burns was shackled to her cell with her arms above her head for the entire night. Other prisoners were beaten and choked. One woman suffered a heart attack and did not receive medical care until the following day.

Conditions in the prison were miserable and unsanitary. The cells were infested with rats, and the women were given food covered in maggots. Some of the women, including Burns, protested their imprisonment with a hunger strike. Burns recalled that her strike ended with a violent force-feeding: a group of people restrained her as a doctor inserted a tube up her nose so roughly that her nose bled.

Although it would take nearly three more years for the 19th amendment to be ratified, the “Night of Terror” marked a turning point in the long campaign for women’s suffrage. The public was shocked by accounts of the suffragists’ harsh treatment in the press, and became more sympathetic to their cause.


Commemorating a historic moment

In early 1918, President Wilson reversed his previous opinion and expressed support for a new national amendment. After several failed attempts, the amendment finally passed in both the House and the Senate in June 1919. Over one year later, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, and it became an official part of the U.S. Constitution.

The Lucy Burns Museum devotes half of its space to Burns and the other suffragists who spent time in Occoquan. (The other half of the museum covers the general history of the prison.) Although the original buildings where the women were held are no longer extant, visitors can see replicas of prison doors displaying historic photographs and biographies, and read the prison logs listing the names of the arrested women. A force-feeding diorama brings Burns’ ordeal to life, and informational signs trace the history of women’s suffrage in the United States.

One hundred years after the 19th amendment became law, the Lucy Burns Museum offers an excellent opportunity to look back at a pivotal moment when women suffered physical harm in their unwavering quest for the vote.


Upcoming events

Want to learn more about women’s suffrage? Join us online for two sessions on this topic in October. On October 1, Jane Hampton Cook, author of Resilience on Parade: Short Stories of Suffragists and Women’s Battle for the Vote will share stories of notable women on the long road to suffrage, including Abigail Adams, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Burns. On October 29, Penny Colman, author of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship that Changed the World and The Vote: Women’s Fierce Fight will discuss the history of women’s struggle for suffrage. Both events start at 8 pm Eastern and can be viewed on our Facebook page. If you miss the live version, you can always watch later on our website. We hope to see you there!