The women imprisoned at the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton on Nov. 14, 1917 did not know they were about to change the world.
As members of National Woman Party leader Alice Paul’s Silent Sentinels, those 32 women were just the latest in a long line of suffragists brought to the sprawling corrections facility by train for picketing in front of the White House.
Ranging in age from 19 to 73, the activists jailed at the Women’s Workhouse encountered poor conditions at odds with the comfortable, middle and upper-class environment most of them were accustomed to. They were tortured and force fed when they went on hunger strikes in protest.
After being denied food and drink for more than 36 hours, the women demanded better treatment only to be met by guards who, under the orders of the prison superintendent, beat and assaulted them, leaving some injured and unconscious.
Later known as the “Night of Terror,” Nov. 14, 1917 was a particularly brutal day in the 72-year long fight for women’s suffrage in the U.S., but it also marked a turning point in the movement as news of the activists’ treatment at Occoquan spread, shifting public opinion in favor of their cause.
The protestors were released later that month, and 56 days later, after the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled their arrest, conviction, and imprisonment had been illegal, President Woodrow Wilson publicly called on Congress to consider a Constitutional amendment affirming women’s right to vote.
The House of Representatives passed a resolution prohibiting the denial or abridgment of voting rights on the basis of sex on May 21, 1919, followed two weeks later by the U.S. Senate, and the 19th Amendment was officially adopted on Aug. 18, 1920 when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify it.
Exactly 102 years after the Night of Terror, a different collection of women and men convened at Occoquan Regional Park on land that once hosted the Women’s Workhouse to break ground for the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial, which will honor not just the victims of that one night, but the more than 5 million women who participated in the U.S. women’s suffrage movement.
It will be the first national memorial dedicated to the movement in the country, according to organizers.
“Even though it’s almost 100 years later, it’s important to say, we want to honor these women for what they did,” Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association executive director and CEO Patricia Wirth said. “We don’t want to forget what they did because there was a lot of sacrifice involved in what they accomplished.”
While nowhere near as harrowing or urgent as the struggle it is commemorating, the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial is a major undertaking whose journey to fruition has spanned years and required contributions from hundreds of supporters.
That journey started in 2007 when officials with NOVA Parks, the agency that oversees regional parks in Northern Virginia, approached the League of Women Voters with a proposal to plant a small garden and erect a wall recognizing Occoquan Regional Park’s connection to the suffrage movement.
Established in 1959 as the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, NOVA Parks was the product of efforts by citizens, local governments, and the Northern Virginia Planning District to protect natural resources from the suburban development that was expanding throughout the area.
The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial will continue the authority’s legacy of preserving not just the 12,000 acres of land in its control, but also the history connected to that land, NOVA Parks executive director Paul Gilbert says.
Civil rights battles have been a crucial part of that history. NOVA Parks formed in part as an alternative to the segregated Virginia State Parks system and opened its first pool at Bull Run Regional Park in Centreville with fully integrated facilities in 1968 despite protests.
In addition to hosting the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial, NOVA Parks is working with the Loudoun County NAACP and Loudoun Freedom Center on a series of Loudoun Remembrance and Reconciliation markers memorializing lynching victims.
Gilbert says NOVA Parks is “thrilled” to highlight Occoquan Regional Park’s connection to the fight that ultimately extended voting rights to about 25 million women, though literacy tests and other discriminatory policies still kept many black women from the polls until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“This is the place to honor it,” Gilbert said. “There really is no other individual site that can better tell the story of the suffragist movement than right here.”
The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial grew beyond the original concept of a garden and wall once the League of Women Voters started conducting research for the project and realized that there was no monument to the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S.
Composed mostly of League members at first, the committee charged with creating the memorial eventually expanded into the nonprofit Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association board.
Designed by architect and Fairfax County History Commission at-large member Robert Beach, the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial will center on a plaza with 19 informational stops to educate visitors about the suffrage movement from the Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights in July 1848 to the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
The entrance to the plaza will be marked by a replica of the White House gates accompanied by commemorative banners resembling the ones carried by protesting suffragists and a donor wall with the names of individuals and organizations who contribute to the memorial.
Along the walkway leading up to the plaza will be a commemorative wall with the names of all the women known to have been imprisoned at the Occoquan Workhouse, and a paved path will branch off into a meditation garden.
The memorial will also feature an interactive information kiosk in the likeness of a 1920 vote box, an early 20th century rail car like the ones that transported suffragists around the country, and a rotunda with a sculpture of a suffragist shackled to a jail door, evoking the “Jailed for Freedom” pins given to the women jailed at Occoquan in 1917.
The project carries an estimated cost of $2 million, about $150,000 of which still needs to be raised, according to Wirth.
Among the biggest donors so far is Fairfax County, which contributed a $200,000 grant that was unanimously approved by the county’s board of supervisors.
On top of its historical import, the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial could be an economic boon for Fairfax County with organizers projecting more than 300,000 visitors annually, based on current Occoquan Regional Park attendance.
The memorial furthers the county’s vision for South County as a historic tourism hub, anchored by the transformation of the former Lorton Correctional Facility into the Workhouse Arts Center.
The Workhouse Arts Center will complement the Turning Point memorial with a Lucy Burns Museum. Named after Paul’s co-founder of the National Woman’s Party, the museum will focus on the Lorton area’s history as a District of Columbia prison complex, from the opening of the Occoquan Workhouse in 1910 to the Lorton Correctional Facility’s closure in 2001.
The Lucy Burns Museum will be housed in a renovated 10,000 square-foot barracks building on the Workhouse Arts Center campus and will open to the public on Jan. 25 with a grand opening scheduled for May 9, 2020.
“Our history has both the good and the bad, and it’s important that we know all of that history,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova said. “It’s important that we celebrate the courage of women who were in prison here. It’s not easy to speak out, and it’s not easy to do what they did.”
Wirth hopes the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association will be able to raise all the funds necessary for construction and operations by the 100th anniversary of the certification of the 19th Amendment, though the memorial will be dedicated on Aug. 26, 2020 even if it is not complete.
Selected by the National Women’s History Alliance as the National Suffrage Centennial Event of the year, the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial dedication will be the centerpiece of a flurry of activities being organized across the country to celebrate the 19th Amendment’s passage, from museum exhibits to a Girl Scout 2020 Women’s Right to Vote Centennial Patch Program.
“We could maybe leave something out until we raise the extra money, but we’re hoping not to do that,” Wirth said. “…We’re hoping people will step up and ensure that we can build this out as designed, because we feel that after all these years, the women deserve it.”