Women's Suffrage Movement Led to Occoquan Workhouse Imprisonment
by Debbie Robison

The Occoquan workhouse played a central role in the efforts, and ultimate success, of suffragettes seeking the right to vote. Lucy Burns, who with Alice Paul founded the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (which evolved into the National Woman’s Party), was an influential leader behind efforts to attract publicity to the woman’s suffrage movement. Beginning in January 1917, women from all over the United States picketed President Woodrow Wilson’s administration at the White House.[1] Wilson believed that suffrage was state issue, not a national one.[2]


The picketers, arrested by a reluctant police force, initially were released on their own recognizance, and later given short three-day sentences in the District jail. On July 14, 1917, sixteen upper-society women were arrested and sentenced to two months in the District workhouse at Occoquan.[3] Militants, as the picketers were termed, continued to be arrested and sent to the workhouse (some with six-month sentences) through November 1917.[4] Charges faced by the women included inciting unlawful assemblage and obstructing traffic. [5] Two leaders of the National Woman’s Party, Lucy Burns and Alice Paul, were imprisoned at the Occoquan workhouse. The courtroom was an opportunity for the suffragettes to speak out.


“As long as women have to go to jail for petty offenses to secure freedom for the women of America, then we will continue to go to jail.” [6]


The imprisoned suffragettes were welcomed to the workhouse by Superintendent Whittaker, who felt they should be treated as any other prisoner. They wore gray one-piece dresses, ate standard prison fare, and were assigned to the sewing room and gardens to work.[7]Whittaker announced that outside communications would be limited.


Supt. Whittaker announced last night that there will be no visitors for the ladies and they will not be allowed to communicate with any one. They will be permitted to write to their relatives, subject to the jail censorship, and will be allowed to received letters from relatives, of course. If they desire a lawyer, he or she will be allowed to converse with them…[8]


Miss Lucy Burns visited the workhouse in August 1917 to investigate the lack of nourishment and poor food. Burns, finding that the women were much thinner and complaining of headaches due to poor and insufficient food, spoke in conference with Illinois Senator J. Hamilton Lewis. Lewis agreed to visit the workhouse to probe the charges.[9]


Charges were filed against Whittaker by a committee of the National Woman’s party, headed by Miss Lucy Burns, accusing Whittaker of cruelty to prisoners. Malnutrition resulted in six women being hospitalized. Additionally, an affidavit charged Whittaker with permitting a prisoner to be chained to the walls in a cell of the workhouse.[10]Pending an inquiry, Whittaker was relieved of his duties, but was later reinstated when he was exonerated.[11]


The Board of Charities committee, in a report to commissioners stated:


From the date of the commitment of the first of the several groups of the National Woman’s party to Occoquan a spirit of insubordination, of mischievous agitation and utter disregard of all rules and regulations has been exhibited by them.[12]


This insubordination continued for eleven suffrage pickets who faced solitary confinement unless they rescind their “ultimatum” declaring that they will not work because they are “political prisoners.”[13]


Led by Alice Paul and Miss Winslow, sixteen suffragettes began hunger strikes in mid-November. It was reported by National Women’s Party members that:

Mrs. Lawrence Lewis…and Miss Lucy Burns…were removed from Occoquan to jail Tuesday, where they were forcibly fed, Miss Burns by means of a tube through the nose.[14]


By the end of November 1917, sentences for the suffragettes required that they be sent to the Washington Asylum Jail instead of Occoquan. Some were illegally transferred to the workhouse, but were subsequently returned by court order.[15] Eighteen lawsuits, totaling $1.2 M, were filed in December by picketers alleging insults, abuse, and false imprisonment.[16] Supervisor Whittaker resigned three months later, and was replaced by Charles C. Foster.[17]


On August 26, 1920, the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote.


[1] “Profiles: Selected Leaders of the National Woman’s Party,” http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/suffrage/nwp/profiles.html (July 30, 2006)

[2] “Pickets to Be Punished,” Post, October 20, 1917, p. 5.

[3] “Take 9 More “Suffs,” Post, June 27, 1917, p. 2; and “Chronology of Pickets From Original Arrests To Terms at Occoquan,” Post, July 18, 1917, p. 1.

[4] “31 Militants Sent Back to Occoquan,” Post, November 15, 1917, p. 11.

[5] “Militants Given 6 Months in Jail,” Post, October 17, 1917, p. 10.

[6] “Sixteen Militants Begin 60-Day Term,” Post, July 18, 1917, p. 1. [Note: Quote by Miss Martin.]

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Pickets Condemn Food,” Post, August 26, 1917, p. 7.

[10] “Pickets Bring Charges,” Post, August 30, 1917, p. 5; “Pickets File Charges,” Post, August 31, 1917, p. 4.

[11] “Whittaker Keeps Job,” Post, October, 12, 1917, p. 4.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Pickets to be Punished,” Post, October 20, 1917, p. 5

[14] “Food is Forced on Five Pickets,” Post, November 22, 1917, p.10.

[15] “Pickets Remanded to District Jail,” Post, November 25, 1917, p. 3.

[16] “$400,000 is Asked by Pickets in Suits,” Post, December 12, 1917, p. 12; “Pickets Sue for $800,000,” December 14, 1917, p. 10.

[17] “C. C. Foster Made Occoquan Head,” Post, March 29, 1918, p. 14.