Cell at Occoquan Workhouse and Pauline Adams in Prison Garb, Photographs, 1917
As World War I escalated so did the fight for suffrage. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), along with the Equal Suffrage League (ESL) of Virginia, condemned women who practiced a militant approach to woman suffrage, fearing that they would alienate members of Congress. The National Woman's Party (NWP) was organized in 1913 as the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU), a part of NASWSA. The CU was expelled from NSWSA in 1914 and renamed themselves in 1916. The NWP was composed of women who believed that public protests would gain popular attention for woman suffrage. They picketed and held pageants, parades, and demonstrations. They were successful in gaining publicity and stimulating public debate, especially when picketers began getting arrested and imprisoned and subsequently participating in hunger strikes.
The NWP focused its efforts on a national woman suffrage amendment and in 1917 began picketing the White House. The government agreed with the NAWSA and the ESL that the NWP militant tactics were misguided at a time when the country was entering a world war. Members of the NWP, on the other hand, believed it was as important to extend democracy at home as it was to defend it in war abroad. The federal government took action against the NWP after protestors picketed outside the White House for several months. Beginning in June 1917, the government arrested and imprisoned suffragists most of whom were incarcerated at the Occoquan Workhouse in Fairfax County, Virginia.
The Occoquan Workhouse, located in Lorton, Virginia, was opened in 1910 as an experiment Short-term prisoners such as habitual drunkards, vagrants, and family abusers, were sentenced to hard work in an open air environment. In 1912, the Women's Workhouse was opened. Female inmates, convicted of crimes such as soliciting, prostitution, disorderly conduct, and drunkenness were sent there for short sentences. Many of the arrested women from the NWP were incarcerated at Occoquan Workhouse after choosing imprisonment over a fine and freedom. Conditions were deplorable for the women. In a letter to her son, suffragist Pauline Adams complained of food infested with worms and an absence of blankets, combs, and eyeglasses. In her book, Jailed for Freedom, Doris Stevens, another imprisoned suffragist, described her stay at Occoquan Workhouse. She included several picketers' stories and descriptions of the unhygienic conditions, forced labor, meager and unsanitary food, hunger strikes, forced feedings of strikers, and the contemptuous and sometimes violent treatment the women received from the administrators. Word spread of the poor treatment of suffragists, and they all were released at the end of November 1917. Beginning in February 1919, some of the most prominent women who had been imprisoned toured the country on the “Prison Special” railroad car to keep public attention focused on the suffrage amendment then pending in Congress.
The publicity and public support for imprisoned suffragists forced President Woodrow Wilson to endorse a federal woman suffrage amendment in 1918. Congress passed the measure in 1919, and the NWP began campaigning for state ratification. Woman suffrage became law in August 1920 after Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.
1. How was the NWP different from the NAWSA and the ESL?
2. What kinds of tactics did the NWP use to promote the issue of woman suffrage?
3. What were conditions like for the women imprisoned at Occoquan Workhouse?
1. The threat of arrest and imprisonment has often been used as a way to deter protesters. What are other notable examples of individuals who were arrested for protesting?
2. Were the suffragists imprisoned at Occoquan political prisoners? Why or why not?
These images come from a collection that spans a period from about 1875 to 1938 but largely date between 1913 and 1922, during and immediately after the suffrage campaign. There are approximately 2,650 photographs included in a large body of records created or collected by the National Woman's Party and subsequently donated to the Library of Congress Manuscript Division in 1941 and 1979.
Stevens, Doris. Jailed for Freedom. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920.
Lunardini, Christine A. From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights: Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party, 1910–1928. New York: New York University Press, 1986.
Ford, Linda. Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman's Party, 1912–1920. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1991.
"Adams, Pauline Forstall Colclough." In Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Edited by John T. Kneebone et al. 1:31–32. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.