It’s hard to imagine today, but barely more than 100 years ago a number of women were jailed at a District of Columbia facility after being arrested during a protest at the White House. But those arrests were just part of a continuing effort by the government to push back against women’s suffrage movement early in the 20th Century.
Now a museum has opened in the Workhouse Arts Center, which was created in the former Occoquan Workhouse, part of a prison complex that once served the District of Columbia.
A grand opening is set for May 9, 2020, but the Lucy Burns Museum opened to the public on January 25.
Lucy Burns, along with Alice Paul, founded the National Women’s Party in 1912. The two American women focused their attention on federal voting rights. They introduced the militant tactics of women suffragists they learned while living in England and organized parades and picketing of the White House.
According to an article on history.com, police made no effort to stop spectators who attacked the female demonstrators in the District of Columbia. But women continued the effort, undaunted by arrests for impeding traffic and increasingly longer jail sentences.
There were many arrests, but one that is notable is the arrest of Burns and 32 other women on November 14, 1917, and taken to Occoquan. The women demanded to be treated as political prisoners, but according to an account by Inez Haynes Irwin, in the book “The Story of The Woman’s Party,” published in 1921, they were treated brutally, with beatings and force-feeding. At trials, their arrests and treatment at Occoquan were found unlawful.
“Yet in spite of the brutalities to which the Courts sentenced the pickets,” Irwin wrote, “unconsciously they furthered the Suffrage cause. The women turned the Court sessions into Suffrage meetings. In defending their case at one of the early trials, the pickets, each taking up the story where the other left it, told the entire history of the Suffrage movement. Crowds thronged the Court. People attended these trials who had never been to a Suffrage meeting in their lives.”
The women’s efforts eventually paid off. Responding to political pressure, on June 4, 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, allowing women to vote. The amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920. (The State of Wyoming was the first to allow women to vote in 1869, based upon the efforts of a woman in South Pass, Wyoming; although women in Virginia could vote after the 19th Amendment was ratified by the required three-fourths of states in 1920, the State of Virginia did not ratify the 19th Amendment until 1952).
Housed in a 10,000 square foot barracks building on the campus of the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Virginia, the Lucy Burns Museum features exhibits telling the story of 91 years of prison history and of the suffragists imprisoned there in 1917 for picketing the White House, asking for women to be given the right to vote.
Other notable former inmates at Lorton include civil rights activists Noam Chomsky and Norman Mailer and Watergate mastermind G. Gordon Liddy.
Annys Shin, writing for WashingtonCityPaper.com on March 9, 2001, introduced readers to the reformatory: “For generations, District residents, young and old, could sum up the consequences of seriously violating the city’s laws in one word,” she said. “Lorton.”
The residents were not referring to Virginia’s Fairfax County town named for an English village, but to the Lorton Correctional Complex, also known as Lorton Reformatory.
Established in 1910, the complex in the District of Columbia was first a prison farm called the Occoquan Workhouse, originally for men. There were expansions over the years and at one time the facility housed at least 8,000 male and female prisoners. The Occoquan Workhouse
But in 1997, Congress took the District of Columbia out of the prison business, calling for sentenced felons to be housed by the federal Bureau of Prisons. By the end of 2001, the inmates had been transferred and the property was handed over to Fairfax County, Virginia, which began to plan for the future of the historical site (a process that is ongoing).
Workhouse Arts Center
The Lorton property amounted to about 3,000 acres. Of that, about 56 acres once occupied by the historic Occoquan Workhouse was transformed by the Lorton Arts Foundation into a center providing work and exhibit space for artists, some inside the former cells. The center hosts more than 100 arts exhibitions annually, in addition to 800 arts education classes, 300 performances and special events.
Visitors to the workhouse can see remnants of the old prison including guard towers, a baseball field used by prisoners and a bike trail that follows an old railroad line (said to be the only railroad in the U.S. built by prisoners).
The Workhouse Arts Center is located at 9518 Workhouse Way, Lorton, Virginia.
Up to date information about visiting the center, and the Lucy Burns Museum, can be found here.
Admission to the museum is currently free, but there is a small charge for adults to tour the center (under 12 tours for free).