Budding nonprofit honors Alexandria women

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Members of the Virginia League of Women Voters meeting in Alexandria in 1923. (Photo/Harris & Ewing)
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By Luke Anderson | [email protected]

This year marks the centennial of women’s right to vote thanks to the ratification of the 19th Constitutional Amendment, and two Alexandrians have plans to localize the milestone.

Gayle Converse and Pat Miller are researching suffragists tied to Alexandria and partnering with various organizations to highlight influential women throughout the city’s history. They are considering special events in March for Women’s History Month and in August, the month the 19th amendment was ratified 100 years ago in 1920. They plan to house their efforts under a new nonprofit organization called Alexandria Celebrates Women.

Gayle Converse and Pat Miller look at a portrait of Kate Waller Barrett in the Barrett Library on Queen Street. (Photo/Luke Anderson)

“It’s an opportunity to take another look at history,” Converse said. “As we’re talking, we’re in the ideas-gathering stage … to commemorate the anniversary all year long, not just August 2020.”

Converse and Miller began discussing ways to commemorate the centennial this past summer.

“The first step was figuring out, do we have a history here?” Miller said. “It comes out we have a huge history here.”

In November 1917, 33 suffragists protesting in front of the White House were arrested and taken to Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Virginia. There, they were brutalized — stripped, thrown over iron bedrails and hung from the ceiling by their wrists. Protesting their mistreatment, several women went on a hunger strike and were then force-fed raw eggs and milk. Their experience became known as “the Night of Terror.”

News of this led to a hearing at the U.S. Federal Eastern District Court in Alexandria. The judge determined that the women were unjustly arrested and ordered their release. The hearing was a monumental moment in women’s suffrage since it allowed the imprisoned women to continue their demonstrations.

“It blows you away that 100 years ago women were being treated that way,” Miller said. “We don’t treat anybody that way now, even somebody that has killed another person.”

Suffragist Lucy Burns in Occoquan Workhouse in 1917. (Photo/Harris & Ewing)

Converse and Miller are aiming to raise enough money over the next year to dedicate a sign or a plaque at the location of the hearing, which they identified as the intersection of Wolfe and South Washington streets, just north of the Campagna Center.

It’s fitting that much of Converse and Miller’s research was conducted in the Special Collections room at the Kate Waller Barrett branch library on Queen Street. Barrett lived in Alexandria for several decades before her death and served as honorary vice president of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia. She even attended Susan B. Anthony’s funeral, according to Converse.

So far, Converse and Miller have discovered half a dozen Alexandria women who were part of the movement.

They are in contact with several families and descendants of suffragists to gather more information and factcheck rumors and stories that have been passed down. They will soon visit a suffragist’s granddaughter who lives in Richmond. While there, they plan to go to other museums and libraries to add to their research.

In addition to research, Converse and Miller are working on organizing various centennial celebrations. The women are currently putting together a master calendar of all the events related to women’s suffrage in 2020.

In addition, Converse and Miller have partnered with approximately 60 local organizations to help make the celebration city-wide. Members include the American Association of University Women and the League of Women Voters, as well as various libraries, schools and art groups.

“January and February are going to be critical months because most of the organizations are now in their 2020 year and they’ll be laying out all their programs and everything like that,” Miller said. “That’s why we’ve been working with them for the last three or four months in order to make sure that they do something that celebrates women.”

Katherine Waller Barrett, the namesake of the Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library on Queen Street. (Photo/Library of Virginia)

One member is the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra. Music Director James Ross has strived to highlight female composers throughout the symphony’s 2019-2020 season. Miller said that at least one of the composers featured this season has ties to the women’s suffrage movement.

Moving forward with their nonprofit organization, Miller said she hopes to use this year to raise funds and plan events, “and then after that, it could go anywhere.”

Although there are several organizations devoted to women already in place, Miller said she would like to see an organization that branches out and touches many different aspects of Alexandria women’s lives and rights. She has hope that Alexandria Celebrates Women could become an umbrella organization to help and inspire women now and in the future.

Converse said she hopes that “Alexandria Celebrates Women can inspire even more generations because we’re proud of this city and the women and men who have made inroads here.”

For Converse and Miller, honoring the suffragists holds great importance because of the barriers they broke.

“[For women these days,] the doors are wide open,” Miller said. “To me, the suffragettes made that all happen; [they] gave us the right to vote, so therefore, we felt we have power or that we could change things or do things within the systems that existed.”

(Read more: ALIVE! celebrates 50 years)

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