Political and Social Movements

Suffragist Movement

What was the Night of Terror?

It is a little-known episode in the American suffragist movement that took place on November 14, 1917, at the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Virginia.

After President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) took office in January 1917, activists began picketing daily outside the White House, demanding the right to vote for women. It was the first time in history that demonstrators had marched at the White House. The suffragists carried banners that read, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” and, more radically, “Kaiser Wilson: 20,000,000 American women are not self-governed.” Their intent was to expose the government’s hypocrisy: In April the United States had entered World War I (1914–18) in an effort to guarantee democracy abroad, yet democracy did not exist at home—where the entire female population remained disenfranchised.

In June police began arresting demonstrators on minor charges, such as obstructing traffic. But the arrests did nothing to deter the suffragists. Upon their release from prison, they returned to protest at the White House gates. In all, 168 women, including Alice Paul (1885–1977) and Lucy Burns (1879–1966) of the National Woman’s Party, were arrested.

On the night of November 14, 1917, guards took 33 protesters to the Occoquan Workhouse to be held. Previously, the women had been subject to forced feedings and solitary confinement at Occoquan, but this time new cruelties awaited them. They were beaten, dragged, choked, and handcuffed. Word leaked out about the atrocities committed at the workhouse. Less than two weeks later, a judge ruled that the women had been brutally treated, yet they had done nothing more than exercise their constitutional right to free speech. The women returned to their fight, now with more weight of public opinion behind them. Nevertheless, it was three long years before the Nineteenth Amendment was adopted, guaranteeing women the right to vote.

In 1982 a historical marker was placed on the prison grounds in tribute to the brave women who endured Occoquan’s Night of Terror.


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