Education from LVA

Letter From Occoquan Workhouse

  • Pauline Forstall Colclough Adams Wrote to Her Son from Prison, October 23, 1917
  • Pauline Forstall Colclough Adams Wrote to Her Son from Prison, October 23, 1917
  • Pauline Forstall Colclough Adams Wrote to Her Son from Prison, October 23, 1917
In this letter, written in part on jail toilet paper, suffragist Pauline Adams noted that she was “in solitary” and had not been allowed her toothbrush or her hairbrush.
Related documents:
  • Nineteenth Amendment
    Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, August 18, 1920
  • Cell at Occoquan Workhouse and Pauline Adams
    Cell at Occoquan Workhouse and Pauline Adams in Prison Garb, Photographs, 1917
« Return to Far-reaching Changes

Pauline Forstall Colclough Adams Wrote to Her Son from Prison, October 23, 1917

Suffragist Pauline Adams was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1874. By late in the 1890s she had relocated to Norfolk, Virginia. Colclough married Norfolk physician Walter J. Adams and they had two sons. Despite starting her family, Adams did not dedicate all of her time to the household but instead became involved in her community.

By 1910, the woman suffrage movement had caught Adams's attention. She helped bring to Norfolk renowned suffrage movement speakers such as author Ellen Glasgow and the Reverend Anna Shaw. On November 18, 1910, the Norfolk Equal Suffrage League was organized in Adams's living room. She was the first president of the Norfolk league, a National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) affiliate for three years. NAWSA was the most nationally prominent prosuffrage group in the United States. The organization pushed for woman suffrage at the state level in hopes that it would eventually lead to a federal amendment.

In contrast to most of her fellow southern suffragists Adams practiced a more militant approach to advocating a woman's right to vote. Instead of promoting educational activities sponsored by the Norfolk league, Adams favored speaking in the city's streets, picketing, and marching in Washington during Woodrow Wilson's 1913 inaugural parade. Adams' behavior was looked on unfavorably by the Norfolk league conservatives and eventually provoked a reprimand from state league headquarters in Richmond. Unfazed, Adams joined the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU), a group that supported an exclusive campaign for a federal amendment by using militant tactics. Originally part of the NAWSA, the CU was expelled from the NAWSA after campaigning against the Democratic Party in 1914. In 1916, the CU was renamed the National Woman's Party (NWP). From 1917 to 1920 Adams served as president of the Norfolk branch.

As World War I escalated so, too, did the fight for suffrage. The NAWSA, along with the Virginia Equal Suffrage League, condemned women who picketed the White House. Adams and others who disagreed believed that it was as important to extend democracy at home as it was to defend it in war abroad. The first arrests of suffragist picketers were made in June 1917 and by July the picketers were regularly being sentenced to jail time. Adams was one of thirteen women arrested for “flaunting their banners” in front of Wilson's reviewing stand before a Selective Service parade on September 4, 1917. After addressing the court in her own defense Adams was given the ultimatum of receiving sixty days in prison or paying a $25 fine. The suffragists as a whole chose prison and were sent to a workhouse in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Adams endured an extremely unpleasant prison stay. She complained of her food being infested with worms and an absence of blankets, combs and eyeglasses. In a letter to her son, Walter, on October 23, 1917, which Adams wrote with a pencil on the jail's toilet paper, she stated, “I have not been given my tooth brush or hair-brush here.” 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. The women persevered and in a petition to the District of Columbia Commissioners, which Adams signed, requested to be treated as political prisoners. Adams was discharged early in November, and on November 27 and 28 all the picketers in prison were abruptly released. In March 1918, the D.C. Court of Appeals invalidated all the sentences and arrests.

For Educators


1. What did the Nineteenth Amendment do for women?

2. How did Pauline Adams compare to other suffragists?

3. Why was Pauline Adams put in jail?

Further Discussion

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?


Dudley Field Malone (mentioned in Adams' letter) was a New York lawyer and friend of President Wilson's, who resigned his appointment as collector of the Port of New York after witnessing the trial of women picketers. He then offered his legal services to the suffragists, and it was on his appeal to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals that the court ruled that the picketers had been illegally arrested and imprisoned.


Virginia Women in History 2009: Pauline Adams

This Day in Virginia: October 23

Suggested Reading

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.

Tuesday, October 23. '17
In L. D. C. Jail
Dearest Walter,
Hope everything is all right with you and the home bunch but I have been kept from the privilege of in coming or outgoing mail for over the past week and am now locked in a small cell in "solitary". I have not been given my tooth brush or hair-brush here yet but got the loan of this pencil from a new picket who came with another group yesterday. Two leave tomorrow. They only got 30 days while others have 6 Months for doing the same thing "blocking traffic" which is the false charge they trump up against us. There was no one crowding around when I was arrested. Walter why cant you run down to Washington to put me on the train for Norfolk and go back most of the way with me? It will be a nice little trip for you and wont cost much. I am to speak at a "supper" given at Cameron House Headquarters on Sat. or Sun. 3 or 4 and I would like as much for you to be My guest at it as well as for the whole trip. Very likely Dudly Field Malone, Mrs Howard Gould and Mrs Belmont will be there. Mrs Meredith came all the way to Occoquan to see me but was not allowed to do so. If you write to Miss Ruth Crocker 2023 I street N.W. (twenty-twenty-three eye st.) northwest and tell me if you can come she can get word to her sister who is a picket in the next cell, at least I expect she can, but you come and spend Saturday and Sunday in Washington for I expect to be out Sat. morning. For meaness, they said Sun. a.m. for they thought it would cut the "banquet" out but it is sure for Sun. the 4th Nov. There is a train leaves for Richmond at 12 Sunday night and we might catch that if you have to be back so early on Monday. You will easily find Headquarters Woman's Party, (phone Main 5436) 21 Madison Place facing Lafayette Square which is opposite White House (so handy to picket) We wont move until Dec. 1st.
I hope you enjoy the drilling and am sure you are very straight. I will send a ten dollar check if I can get a blank check to write it on. If not will enclose one on plain paper, which is just as good at a bank that identifies you. Be sure to come if you possibly can. Lovingly Mother
Cecil Rhodes used to write checks on edges of old newspapers. I certainly do hope you can come down for the week end but if you cant keep the ten as a present from me.
Just ten days from tomorrow. Hope Frank Yeatman is better. Write Miss Crocker and tell me home news as well as whether you can come down. I am sure the rest and change from my house keeping to Elizabeths has done Dad and family good.
Good bye
Your loving