On November 27th and 28th 1917, the federal government succumbed to public outcry and released the National Women’s Party picketers from the Occoquan Workhouse. The events leading up to this capitulation advanced discussion of women’s suffrage, but at great cost to members of the National Women’s Party.
Founded in 1916 by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, the NWP advocated for a federal amendment recognizing women’s right to vote. During the 1916 presidential election, the NWP made the controversial move to campaign against Democratic incumbent President Woodrow Wilson because he did not support women’s suffrage. Paul also introduced methods of nonviolent civil disobedience she had learned from the suffrage movement in Britain.
In January 1917, the NWP began picketing outside the White House with banners demanding the right to vote. When the United States entered into World War I in April, the National Women’s Party continued picketing outside the White House, a decision that many people and politicians believed to be disloyal. Over the next six months, the women, known as the Silent Sentinals, continued to picket, get arrested, and be detained. During their imprisonment, they experienced harsh conditions with poor sanitation and infested food.
In protest of these conditions, Alice Paul began a hunger strike. Prison officials moved her to the psychiatric ward and force-fed her raw eggs through a feeding tube. On the evening of November 14th, known as the “Night of Terror,” the superintendent and the workhouse guards tortured and beat 33 of the protestor prisoners. Two weeks later, a judge found that the federal government had illegally arrested, convicted, and detained all 218 suffragists, and ordered the women released. Two months later, Wilson threw his support behind a constitutional amendment recognizing women’s right to vote, an amendment that was ratified in 1920.