The Night of Terror will forever mark the turning point in the Women’s Suffragist Movement. It began in January 1917 when suffragists peacefully picketed outside the White House gates, carrying signs that read, “Mr. President, What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage?” No matter the weather, the “Silent Sentinels” stood for their cause six days per week for months. In June of 1917, President Woodrow Wilson instructed the authorities to start arresting the picketers.
Hundreds of suffragists were jailed either in the District of Columbia prison or the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Virginia. On November 14, 1917, 33 suffragists were arrested for “obstructing sidewalk traffic.” They were taken by train to the Occoquan Workhouse where they were beaten and tortured by prison guards. The evening was dubbed the Night of Terror—a “turning point” because it galvanized public support for the movement. While it made news nationally and internationally back then, few people know about it today.
That’s about to change.
On the 102nd anniversary of the Night of Terror, The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association, together with its partner NOVA Parks, held the groundbreaking ceremony for a national memorial on the same hallowed prison grounds where those women were brutalized. “This is our country’s first and only national memorial to honor and commemorate all of the millions of suffragists who fought more than seven decades to win the vote for American women,” says Pat Wirth, executive director and CEO of the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association and NAWBO member. “Five million women fought for 72 years to get the vote, and very few people know the story because it’s deliberately omitted from our mainstream history text books.”
To secure funds for the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial, Pat committed to raising $2 million from governments, numerous national women’s organizations, major corporations and thousands of individuals. The memorial will recognize all suffragists, including African American, Hispanic and Jewish women, who played integral roles in the suffragist movement. Specifically, it will feature 19 interactive learning stations to commemorate the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
One station focuses on the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, also known as the first Women’s Rights Convention, where the suffrage movement formally began. There, Elizabeth Cady Stanton detailed in the Declaration of Sentiments the rights women were seeking to improve their lives that included such things as the right to own property, gain custody of children after divorce, earn a college education and enfranchisement.
The memorial also recognizes Alice Paul, who was among the Silent Sentinels arrested in front of the White House. Paul was portrayed in the film “Iron Jawed Angels,” named for the brutal force-feeding method used to stop the suffragists’ hunger strikes. “What these women went through was horrific,” says Pat. “Yet, they engineered the greatest expansion of democracy on a single day the world had ever seen.” In fact, the public reporting of the Night of Terror is said to have influenced President Wilson who, less than 60 days later, implored Congress to approve a Constitutional Amendment allowing all women to vote. The 19th Amendment, aka the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, became the law of the land in 1920.
As we embark upon the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, plans are under way for the historic dedication of the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial scheduled for August 26, 2020. NAWBO will also help celebrate the occasion throughout the year. “We are excited to finally recognize these women’s sacrifices and efforts,” says Pat. “But there’s still work to do. Our mission is to empower future generations to remain vigilant in the quest for liberty, freedom and equality.”
Turning Point is still in need of donations to build out the memorial as designed. If you’d like to donate, please visit www.suffragistmemorial.org.