The women’s suffrage movement – a template for modern protests

The women’s suffrage movement – a template for modern protests
Silent Sentinels picket the White House. (Photo/Library of Congress)

By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller

The violence directed at some of the recent equal rights marches and protests can be traced to many civil rights efforts of the past, including the women’s suffrage movement in our country.

Attacks on women marchers – 1913 Washington D.C.

Violence erupted during the March 3, 1913 “Woman Suffrage Procession” in Washington D.C. shortly after its peaceful start.

The march for a woman’s right to vote was held the day before Woodrow Wilson’s swearing in, and a number of men who were in town for the inauguration had lined Pennsylvania Avenue. They began to physically attack the parade’s participants. Law enforcement along the route did not control the crowd. More than 100 women were hospitalized as a result of the mayhem.

Suffragists brutalized – November 1917 Occoquan Workhouse

Four years and eight months later, in November 1917, American women who had been picketing nearly every day demanding women’s enfranchisement were arrested.

Wearing white, gold and purple sashes and calling themselves “Silent Sentinels,” the suffragists were charged with “blocking traffic” on the wide Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk in the District of Columbia. Thirty-two women prisoners, many past the age of 60, were sent to the District of Columbia workhouse in nearby Occoquan, Virginia.

The women were subjected to undue hardships and torture, resulting in the infamous Nov. 14, 1917 “Night of Terror.” A number of women prisoners were threatened, beaten and hurled against walls and floors. Suffragist Lucy Burns was forced to stand all night with her arms shackled to the ceiling of her cell.

“The responsibility for an agitation like ours against injustice rests with those who deny justice, not those who demand it,” Eunice Brannan, an Occoquan prisoner and suffragist, said in 1917.

Some women refused to eat the worm-laden food they were given at Occoquan, including Burns and suffragist Dora Lewis. On day seven, allegedly not wanting martyrs on their hands, prison officials force fed them. Lewis wrote that five people seized her and held her down, forcing a tube down her throat. She later wrote, “I [was] gasping and suffocating with the agony of it.”

The suffragist prisoners were eventually removed from the Occoquan Workhouse, following a hearing in the Federal District Court in Alexandria.

Despite the abuse often directed towards the women’s suffrage movement, the non-violent practices of these suffragists proved to be successful in the end. Three years later, the 19th Amendment granting American women the right to vote was ratified. The efforts of these brave women, including Alexandria suffrage heroines, continue to be used as a template by social rights activists in the United States.

For current hours and tours of the new Lucy Burns Museum at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, visit

Register to vote

Registration is open online at for absentee ballots for the November 2020 Election. As of July 1, “no-excuse” absentee ballots are available.

To promote social distancing, the Office of Voter Registration and Elections is open by appointment only. Voters are encouraged to request absentee ballots online and to register to vote online through the Virginia Department of Elections. For questions regarding registration, absentee voting or to request and appointment, email or call 703-746-4050.

The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit that is commemorating the centennial of women’s suffrage and highlighting influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at