Earlier this month millions of American women went to the polls to cast their ballots in the mid-term elections. Most of us know that women fought for 70 years for our right to vote, but how many of us really realize just what they had to endure? Nov. 15 marked the 105th anniversary of the Night of Terror, in which 33 suffragists were imprisoned and tortured for peacefully demonstrating in front of the White House.
In January 1917, groups of suffragists, all members of the National Women’s Party, began silently protesting in front of the White House, holding signs bearing slogans like “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” In all, these “Silent Sentinels,” as they were known, numbered more than 2,000.
For the most part, these protesters were quietly ignored by both conservative suffragists who disagreed with their tactics and the White House. That is until the U.S. entered WWI and the public began seeing their protests as unpatriotic. On Nov. 10, 1917, when 30 suffragists including Alice Paul, Dorothy Day (yes, the same woman who founded the Catholic Worker’s Union), and Lucy Burns were arrested for obstructing traffic in front of the White House. Or at least that was the official charge. Everyone knew they were really being arrested for protesting.
They were taken to District of Columbia Jail and then remanded to Virginia’s Occoquan Workhouse. There, the women who ranged in age from X to 73, demanded to be treated as political prisoners, which the prison guards laughed at. Who were these women to demand such things? They were denied legal counsel, so Dudley Field Malone, a lawyer for the Wilson administration, resigned his position and agreed to represent their legal rights.
On Nov. 14, 1917, the superintendent of the workhouse ordered the guards to beat the suffragists into submission. They were tortured and left for dead. Dora Lewis was knocked unconscious; Alice Cosu suffered a heart attack and was denied medical care until the next morning; and Lucy Burns was awkwardly handcuffed with her hands above her head, forcing her to stand overnight. Many were thrown against an iron bench or their iron bedframes, one violently hitting her head to the point the others thought she was dead.
In response to this mistreatment and horrible living conditions—rats roamed the halls, there were maggots in the food, the water was filthy, and the restrooms were very public—the women staged hunger strikes. The government wasn’t about to have them die in jail, so they were force-fed through tubes. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Library of Congress records that they suffered “unprecedented psychological intimidation.”
This event, dubbed the “Night of Terror” caught media attention, turning public sympathy toward the suffragists. They were released on Nov. 28. About a month and a half later, President Wilson finally announced his support of women’s suffrage. In March of the following year, a D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the arrests were unconstitutional. Silent Sentinels continued to protest until Congress passed the 19th amendment on Aug. 18, 1920. Then the women went back to their home states to campaign for state ratification.
To learn more about the Night of Terror, read Jailed for Freedom, a first-person account of the events by Doris Stevens, or watch the movie Iron Jawed Angels.