By Nancy Lyons Sargeant
Freelance Writer, Radio Broadcaster
“Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” said the icon of the suffragist movement, Inez Millholland Boissevain, just weeks prior to her death. That was 1916 — four years before women won the right to vote.
The question for women today might be, “How long must women wait for a memorial to honor those who suffered for the cause?”
A New Fight: A Memorial Celebrating the 19th Amendment
It has been nearly 90 years since women in the United States won the right to vote. Yet, there is no memorial to the women who were responsible for turning the public tide in favor of the 19th Amendment.
A group of active volunteers in Northern Virginia is trying to change that.
With help from the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, group leader Jane Barker has put together an initiative to raise between $2-$4 million to build the “Turning Point Suffragist Memorial.”
“The history books rarely detail the abuse and humiliation that women endured in their efforts to win the right to vote,” Barker says. “The 72-year-struggle for women’s suffrage called for personal sacrifice from many, but some say the biggest toll was suffered by those who became the first picketers ever at the White House.”
Understanding the Suffragist Movement
Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, co-founders of the National Women’s Party, were frustrated with the slow pace of state-by-state efforts to win women’s suffrage.
Influenced by their British counterparts — who were considered to be more militant suffragettes — the women organized protest marches and then in 1917, the “silent sentinels.”
At first, the stoic and silent women standing at the White House gates were ignored, but eventually more than 160 of them were arrested on charges of “obstructing free passage of the sidewalk.”
Most were taken to the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Va., where they endured beatings and unsanitary conditions. It was not uncommon for them to eat maggot-infested food. Some went on hunger strikes, so they were repeatedly force-fed with long tubes down their throats.
Click here to see the trailer for the HBO movie, Iron Jawed Angels, which dramatizes the fight of Alice Paul (played by Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (played by Frances O’Connor).
Once news of the abusive treatment leaked out, public sentiment softened and telegrams poured into the White House. It was said to be the turning point in the movement. President Woodrow Wilson wasn’t “waiting” anymore. He responded by introducing the Susan B. Anthony Amendment which was eventually ratified as the 19th Amendment on August 26th, 1920.
The Women Behind the Memorial
An all-volunteer committee is working with the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority to create a memorial in Occoquan Regional Park in Lorton, Va., to honor those who endured the harsh conditions at the Occoquan Workhouse.
Located across the street from where the Workhouse once stood, the new memorial was designed by Robert Beach of Robert E. Beach Architects, and will include a garden, 19 interactive vignettes detailing suffragist history, and a beautiful water feature.
A rendering of Beach’s design was unveiled during a recent fundraising event, called The Silent Sentinel Award Reception, at the Atrium at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, VA in May.
Long-time White House correspondent and women’s activist Helen Thomas was honored at the event for her work as a trailblazer for gender equality. “I support the construction of the memorial,” she told the gathered crowd. “This is a tremendously worthy cause.”
Thomas was presented with the award by Newsweek columnist, Eleanor Clift, (pictured above with Thomas) who was the keynote speaker at last year’s event.
An honorary sponsor of the project, Clift said the memorial itself will serve as a “silent sentinel” for the suffragists who were held at Occoquan.
Virginia First Lady Maureen McDonnell is also a strong supporter, and says the memorial “will ensure that the stories of these brave women are told in a compelling and enduring way, accessible for generations to come.” She adds that “we simply cannot leave to chance the remembrance of this important chapter in our nation’s history.”
The goal for the group is to have the memorial fully installed by 2020 — the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.
“Our hope is that the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial will help educate those who are not familiar with the sacrifices that were made for women to gain the right to vote,” Barker says. “I am looking forward to a strong fundraising campaign, and to raising enough money in the next few years to make this dream come to fruition.”
For more information, visit www.suffragistmemorial.org.
About Nancy Lyons Sargeant
In addition to working as the communications director of the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial, Nancy Lyons Sargeant is a freelance newscaster at National Public Radio. In recent years, she has worked as a business anchor for MarketWatch Radio, and as a news anchor for the Associated Press Radio Network.
Nancy has won 10 national awards for her broadcasting work — including an Edward R. Murrow Award for contributing to coverage of the Sept. 11, 2001 disaster, the George Foster Peabody Award for coverage of victims of violent crime, and the Robert F. Kennedy Award for her profiles on poverty.
For more information, contact Nancy at firstname.lastname@example.org.