The Washington area has a glut of memorials. There are the ones you all know, like Lincoln and Jefferson, and the statues of Einstein and Gandhi. There’s a Sonny Bono Park and a Maine Lobster Memorial and a very graphic remembrance of a D.C. fireman who was crushed to death in 1856. In Meridian Hill Park, there’s even a massive memorial to James Buchanan, considered by many historians to have been the very worst president of the United States.
There are, however, few memorials to women, and those that do exist, like the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, tend to honor their often-overlooked military service, not the long struggle women had -- and continue to have -- for full equality.
That could change if the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial is constructed in Lorton, Va. WTOP reported that funds are being raised for the project, expected to cost about $4 million, with hopes of completion by 2020, the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
What happened in Lorton, and what was the “turning point”? It was a neglected bit of history called the “Night of Terror” that so shocked the nation that many who had been ambivalent about women’s suffrage got behind the movement.
After the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, activists from the National Woman’s Party took to picketing outside the White House, highlighting the hypocrisy of President Woodrow Wilson’s call to make the world safe for democracy when one-half of his own nation was disenfranchised. It was the first time daily picketers appeared outside the White House, and the women were repeatedly arrested. After being released, many returned to picketing.
On Nov. 14, 1917, 33 of the demonstrators were arrested on charges of obstructing traffic, and taken to the Occoquan Workhouse, which was then part of a Lorton prison complex. Many had been held there before, denied visitors and medical care, but this arrest would be different. Occoquan superintendent W.H. Whittaker ordered his 44 guards to teach the uppity women a lesson.
Lucy Burns was beaten and then left hanging through the night by her hands chained to cell bars above her head, nearly suffering asphyxiation. Dora Lewis was thrown against an iron bed, knocking her unconscious. One woman was stabbed in the face with the broken pole of her own protest banner. Others were kicked, beaten, and choked; one suffered a heart attack. The abuse continued for days.
Alice Paul went on a hunger strike. She was tied to a chair, where a tube was forced down her throat so she could be force-fed. When word of her treatment was leaked to the media, government officials tried to have Paul declared insane so she could be permanently institutionalized -- and removed from the women’s movement.
About two weeks after the “Night of Terror,” the women were finally given a court hearing. Some had to be carried into the courtroom because of the impact of the long period of abuse. A judge found that they had been terrorized for simply exercising their constitutional right to protest. Worldwide outrage helped push Wilson, until then an opponent of votes for women, to back passage of the amendment.
The planners of the memorial call the sad episode “possibly the most significant moment in the fight for women’s suffrage in the United States,” which “became the ‘turning point’ in the struggle for the 19th Amendment.”
Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC