The “Night of Terror” is what suffrage activists in the United States later called November 14, 1917.
The U.S. was fighting WWI to “make the world safe for democracy.” Women, vote-deprived and, so, denied participation in American democracy, thought this the height of hypocrisy and let Woodrow Wilson know.
For months, peaceful demonstrators endured harassment, mob attacks, and ridicule, called heretics or worse, merely because they wanted the right to vote. Arrested for “obstructing traffic,” they were given long prison sentences; made to strip in front of each other; denied toiletries, pencils, paper. Some were sent to the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia where they shared cells with rats and found worms floating in their soup. Those who chose to go on hunger strikes were brutally force-fed.
A NIGHTMARE OF VIOLENCE
In the days leading up the the Night of Terror, radical suffrage leader Alice Paul was arrested and, in an effort to undermine her credibility, sent to a psychiatric ward,. There, she was denied legal counsel.
On November 14, 31 picketers, absent their leader, were arrested. They demanded to be acknowledged as political prisoners. As they waited to see the prison superintendent, the holding room filled with male security guards.
Then, on cue, the room erupted into a nightmare of violence. Guards with clubs beat, kicked, and choked the women. They grabbed them, one at a time, and hauled them off down a long corridor and shoved them into cells.
Dorothy Day, the future co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was there. A “slight girl” at the time, she was thrown hard against an iron bench in a cell. In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she wrote:
When another prisoner tried to come to my rescue, we found ourselves in the midst of a milling crowd of guards being pummeled and pushed and kicked and dragged, so that we were scarcely conscious, in the shock of what was taking place.
One woman collapsed with severe chest pains, but the guards refused to send for a doctor. Another woman was placed in the men’s wing for the entire sleepless night.
LUCY BURNS IN CHARGE
In the midst of the chaos, Lucy Burns (in photo), a fearless redhead from Brooklyn, began to call the roll and bring a sense of order. Her strong voice calmed the others.
“Where’s Mrs. Lewis?” she called out.
Down the row of cells a voice called back, “They’ve thrown her in here.”
Burns continued down the roster, determining who was safe, who was missing, who needed help. The guards warned her to stop, but she forged ahead.
Suddenly, men stormed into her cell. They grabbed her arms, handcuffed her wrists and fastened them above her head to the bars of the cell door. They left, swearing to return with a buckle gag if she made another sound.
A LONE GESTURE OF SOLIDARITY
In most history textbooks, the “Night of Terror” is omitted, let alone the story of one small gesture that happened in a dark corner, where only one other could see.
Julia Emory, a young activist in the cell directly across from Lucy Burns, watched the guards enter and leave. She saw Burns’ lonely punishment, her arms cuffed over her head. After thinking for a moment, Emory stood up and walked to her cell door. Then, looking directly at Lucy, she raised her arms over her own head. The two women stood like that for hours, facing each other in tortured position, neither saying a word.
Lucy understood that she was not alone. Another woman suffered with her.
Julia Emory maintained her personal vigil of suffering and witness until the guards returned to unlock the handcuffs from the bars of Burns’ cell door. Only then did both women lower their arms.
TO GO DEEPER
Alice Paul: Equality for Women by Christine Lunardini (2012) A concise and readable first book about the suffrage leader from the Lives of American Women series edited by Carol Berkin.
The Story of Alice Paul and The National Women’s Party by Inez Haynes Irwin (1964/1977) Full of details.
Jailed for Freedom: The Story of the Militant American Suffragist Movement by Doris Stevens 1976/1995) This is a detailed memoir, with photos, by one of the activists.
Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States by Eleanor Flexner and Ellen Fitzpatrick 1959/ 1996) Considered the classic book of women’s history in the U.S., from colonial days to the 1920s
The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement: 1890-1920 by Aileen S. Kraditor (1965/1981) Theories behind both suffrage and antisuffrage activism
Woman’s Suffrage Monument — People are working to raise funds to erect a suffragist memorial (Turning Point Suffragist Memorial) in Virginia, where women activists were imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse. Check out their website:
AUDIO CLIP: Podcast #1 “Night of Terror” 3 minutes (from a series)
FILM: Iron Jawed Angels, 2004 movie featuring Hilary Swank as Alice Paul and Frances O-Connor as Lucy Burns, leading the fight for the 19th Amendment giving women the vote.
YOUTUBE: “Alice Paul, presented by The Alice Paul Institute” (6 minutes) Powerful, short summary of highlights in the fight for the right to vote.
The Alice Paul Institute website, educates about and honors the suffrage leader who wrote the Equal Rights Amendment: