ALEXANDRIA,VA–It started as a one-man campaign. In 1980, Fairfax County resident Joseph Flakne read the book Jailed for Freedom and was astounded to learn that over 70 women picketing on the White House sidewalk for the right to vote had been jailed in the Occoquan Workhouse, only five miles from his Mason Neck home. Flakne, age 80, decided that this little-known story should be told.
By 1980, the workhouse was called the Lorton Reformatory, a division of the District of Columbia’s Department of Corrections. The department’s historian, Mary Oakey, accessed the workhouse admitting officer’s handwritten log of the jailed suffragists’ names, fines, and sentences. Armed with these facts, the League persuaded the Fairfax County History Commission and the Virginia Historic Landmarks Register to erect a marker at the site.
League president and future Virginia Congresswoman Leslie Byrne raised $800 for the project, “a big chunk of change for the League then,” she chuckles. On March 6, 1982, Flakne and other notables dedicated the marker that today stands near the workhouse site in Occoquan Regional Park.
Twenty-five years later, in 2007, John Houser, manager of the Occoquan Regional Park, learned about the jailed suffragists and erected three signs, but he decided that this largely untold chapter of history “deserved more than three signs,” he recalls. He formed a committee to focus on building a wall that would list the jailed women’s names.
Soon it “became apparent that a wall was not enough,” says Jane Barker, a League officer then. It should be a national memorial. And although local architect Robert Beach would design the memorial for free, they needed a formal organization to raise construction funds.
The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association (TPSMA) was incorporated in 2011, with Jane Barker as board chair. In 2015, Patricia Wirth was hired as executive director. Wirth launched a $2 million capital campaign to build the memorial within the new cultural area of the Occoquan Regional Park overlooking the Occoquan River.
TPSMA board members and volunteers have hosted fundraisers, dinners, galas, talks, and book signings. They have networked with groups like the American Association of University Women and women’s clubs, and with corporations, foundations, and philanthropists. Fairfax County contributed $200,000; Procter and Gamble, $150,000; Emily and Fred McCoy, $130,000; and Dominion Energy, $25,000. Hundreds of donations from $20 to $500 have come in. Donors have even dropped dollar bills into pails at events.
“People love the project and think the plans are beautiful,” Barker says. Asked about hurdles, she adds, “We have had to educate people about the project because the history is so little known. Once we tell them what happened there, they are very excited about the project.”
Why “the Turning Point”?
The 1917 jailing of 70 suffragists was a turning point in the effort to include women’s right to vote in the U.S. Constitution.
Women who were called Silent Sentinels held wordless, peaceful pickets on the White House sidewalk in all kinds of weather, as President Woodrow Wilson, cloistered inside, ducked and delayed. Wearing purple, gold, and white sashes, the demonstrators hoisted banners that asked “How long must women wait for liberty?”
Against the backdrop of U.S. involvement in World War I, they called Wilson a hypocrite for fighting for democracy abroad while denying it at home. One suffragist leaflet read, “As a War Measure, The Country is Asking of Women, Service. Women Are Asking of The Country, Enfranchisement.”
The Washington, D.C., police arrested 70 picketing women for “obstructing traffic.” When they were given the choice of paying a $25 fine or going to jail, they chose jail. “Not a dollar of your fine shall we pay,” protested National Women’s Party co-founder Lucy Burns. “To pay a fine would be an admission of guilt. We are innocent.”
Officers hauled the women to the Occoquan Workhouse. They were stripped, dragged, and clubbed, fed maggot-laden food, and housed in rat-infested cells with prostitutes, drunks, and thieves. Prison guards manacled Burns’ hands to the cell bars, forcing her to stand all night. When suffragists went on a hunger strike, jailers force-fed them raw eggs and milk through a tube inserted into their nasal passages.
The women called this the Night of Terror. After word of their harsh treatment leaked out, Wilson relented and announced that he now supported the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—as a “war measure.”
On June 4, 1919, 41 years after it was first introduced, Congress sent the 19th Amendment giving 25 million women the right to vote to the states for ratification.
It had taken decades of agitating, orating, organizing, protesting, petitioning, and jail.
No one rushed to build a monument. Across the land, marble and bronze men sit atop stallions, charge across battlefields, and perch on pedestals. “You can go into D.C. and see monuments to men who did nothing more than lead a charge up a hill,” says Houser. “You cannot find even a plaque to the women who enfranchised 25 million. The story needs to be told.”
Of the nation’s over 5,000 outdoor statues honoring historical figures, fewer than 400 recognize women.
Visitors to the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial will enter through a replica of the White House gates, the backdrop of the Silent Sentinels’ pickets, and then see the Turning Point Plaza Rotunda. The rotunda will house statues of key suffragists Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul, and Ida B. Wells. Nineteen stations (for the 19th Amendment) affixed to 10 concrete pillars will recount the movement’s history, the court cases that denied women’s rights, nine unsuccessful suffrage campaigns, the Night of Terror, and state ratification campaigns. Names of those contributing more than $1,000 will be displayed on a donor wall.
The building permit will be in place soon. Organizers plan a formal groundbreaking for late 2019 or early 2020 and a dedication on August 26, 2020, the centennial of ratification.
Memorial sponsors envision it being part of a Constitution Trail because it is within a day’s drive of Mount Vernon, home of the first president under the Constitution, George Washington (and Martha); Gunston Hall, home of the Virginia Declaration of Rights author George Mason (and Sarah); Montpelier, home of an author of the Constitution James Madison (and Dolley); and several Civil War battlefields where the concept of “united states” was at issue.
Many of the suffragists’ names have been lost to history and their crusade overlooked. “The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial is important because the suffragists fought and won the right for American women to vote in what was essentially a 72-year, bloodless revolution,” says Wirth. “The memorial will be a visual symbol and educational tool to remedy this egregious omission.”
Edith Mayo, Curator Emeritus in Political and Women’s History of the Smithsonian Institution, calls it the “best kept secret in American history.” Advocates expect the memorial to shine a bright light on a long-ignored chapter of U.S. history and the dogged women for whom, as Susan B. Anthony said, “Failure is impossible.”
The long-term lesson in this effort? “It is important to remain vigilant on women’s rights, civil rights, and human rights,” Barker believes. To learn more, visit www.suffragistmemorial.org.