From the Office of Historic Alexandria
Alexandria, VA – “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” – 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution
When the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, often referred to as the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment,” was ratified August 18, 1920, it enfranchised nearly 26 million American women in time for the 1920 U.S. presidential election and put an end to nearly one hundred years of protest.
A century later, as the nation prepares to mark the centennial of a woman’s right to vote, Alexandria prepares to celebrate its suffragist heroines. As early as four decades before the American Civil War, women began to play prominent roles in temperance and religious societies and the abolitionist movement.
Sparsely populated Western states began to grant women voting rights in the 19th century but women’s enfranchisement remained far from approval on the federal level. Women’s suffrage amendments had been proposed to the U.S. Congress by 1869, followed by annual proposals between 1878 and 1920.
Southerners, mainly due to local government opposition, had been hesitant to join the pro-suffrage bandwagon, yet in 1909, Virginia women joined counterparts in other segments of the country to fight for voting rights to support reforms in child labor, education, and temperance.
Disparities within the women’s suffrage movement were nothing new. In the mid-1800s, female abolitionists had begun to document conditions of enslaved Americans as well as their own circumstances within a male-controlled culture. But the predominantly white suffrage movement often discriminated against black women shouldering the same objective.
In 1870, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed. It states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The 15th Amendment proved stronger in concept than in practice. Many black men were denied their right to vote by poll taxes, deceptive literacy exams, and grandfather clauses.
Of course, the 15th Amendment also excluded women. Since they had been barred from white organizations, including the National Woman Suffrage Association and American Woman Suffrage Association, black activists began organizing their own groups in the 1880s. The National Association of Colored Women created the motto, “Lifting as We Climb,” advocating for women’s rights as well as “uplifting” and improving the status of African Americans.
As the country entered World War I in 1917, a woman’s standing as a United States citizen took on new meaning when women left their homes to enter the wartime civilian workforce, labor in munitions factories, and serve in military support roles. This added fuel to the suffrage movement.
A federal hearing was held on November 27, 1917, at the corner of South Saint Asaph and Prince Streets in Alexandria. What took place in the small courtroom that stood there was instrumental to the eventual ratification of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing a woman’s right to vote.
While incarcerated at the Occoquan Workhouse, women who had demonstrated that autumn for the right to vote were subjected to undue hardships and torture, culminating in the infamous November 14, 1917 “Night of Terror.” Women prisoners were threatened, beaten, and hurled against walls and floors. Suffragist Lucy Burns was forced to stand all night with her arms shackled to the ceiling of her cell.
Some women prisoners refused to eat the worm-laden food they were given, including suffragists Lucy Burns and Dora Lewis. On day seven of their imprisonment, prison officials force-fed them. Lewis wrote that five people seized her and held her down. The doctor forced a tube down her throat, “I (was) gasping and suffocating with the agony of it.”
On November 17, Judge Edmund Waddill, Jr., in the U.S. District Court at Richmond (VA), ordered a writ of habeas corpus seeking the release of the suffragists undergoing the rigid disciplinary treatment at Occoquan. Judge Waddill set the hearing for November 27 at Alexandria.
On that date, the suffragists were transported from Occoquan and filed into court in Alexandria one by one, shocking some of the spectators. Many were so weak they had to lie on the courtroom benches. The judge ruled in favor of the women, saying the suffragists could be paroled pending appeal. Most of the women insisted on serving out the remainder of their sentences in the Washington District Jail.
News of the Night of Terror sparked protests across the country. In March 1918, four months after the Night of Terror, a judge ruled that the suffragists had been illegally arrested, convicted, and detained at the Occoquan Workhouse.
Along with other American women, Virginia women gained the right to vote in August 1920, after the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became law—but it took 32 years, until February 21, 1952, for the Virginia General Assembly to ratify the 19th Amendment.
Alexandria certainly played a strong role in the women’s movement and eventual passage of the 19th Amendment. First-time women voters did not miss the opportunity to cast their ballots on November 2, 1920. According to the Wednesday, November 3, 1920, Alexandria Gazette, “…The women voted in large numbers and fully three-fourths of the number qualified took part in the election…There are 4,250 qualified voters in the city, of which number 1,399 are women.”
Throughout Alexandria’s history, women have served our city and nation proudly, as activists and social, civic, environmental, health, education, and military leaders. Women of Alexandria today carry on this distinguished legacy.