Making Time for Suffragists at the Lucy Burns Museum

The newly opened exhibit shatters the illusion of the role of the countryside for peaceful recreation.

by Laura A. Macaluso *

Not far from the madding crowd in Washington, D.C., the dense urban landscape of Northern Virginia gives way to planned communities of condominiums and townhouses which further give way to semi-rural tracts of land with tall grasses and trees that blow in gentle winds and are home for many species of birds, hawks, foxes, and deer. You are not far from the Beltway, that is Interstate 495 which encircles the DMV (the District of Columbia — Maryland — Northern Virginia). Getting off 495 and traveling south, you could be forgiven for thinking that by leaving the so-called “swamp” of DC in your rearview mirror, you were leaving social unrest and political machinations behind. Perhaps driving the George Washington Parkway or old Route 1, you pass Mt. Vernon, the first president’s plantation on the Potomac River, and many entrances to Fort Belvoir, one of the oldest American army bases — and once the land of the Fairfax family (close friends to George Washington), who high-tailed it back to England right before the American Revolution.

Workhouse Arts Center, Lorton, Virginia. The Lorton Prison Complex, also known as the Workhouse, Reformatory and Penitentiary or the DC Workhouse, was a prison built in the “academical campus” style modeled by the University of Virginia. The buildings date from the 1920s and 1930s, constructed of bricks made by the prisoners themselves in kilns located on the Occuquan River. The original campus grew to 3,200 acres. Today only a fraction of the original acreage remains, with the buildings transformed into the Workhouse Arts Center in 2008. The “LOVE” sign seen on the lawn is a Tourism Virginia Corporation staple, seen across the Commonwealth, which stands for “Virginia Is For Lovers,” one of the longest lasting and most successful tourism brands in American history. The Lucy Burns Museum is located in the far right corner.

If your thoughts turned, as mine did, to this long-ago history and to the presence of nature as the vistas opened on your drive, the newly opened exhibit at the Lucy Burns Museum at the Workhouse Arts Center will shatter illusions of the role of countryside for peaceful recreation. For here in Lorton, a lightly populated area of Fairfax County twenty miles from the capitol, stands the D.C. Workhouse, a prison complex used by the Washington, D.C. Department of Corrections for more than ninety years. And it was here, in 1917 and 1918 that 72 women, mostly from the National Women’s Party, were arrested after picketing in front of the White House for suffrage. In American history, they were the first to ever do so. Although the Workhouse was intended by President Theodore Roosevelt to be a model of progressive era penal reform where the “moral, mental and physical fiber of prisoners were remade” (Lucy Burns Museum brochure) through a program emphasizing healthy living through hands-on activities in the outdoors such as growing vegetable gardens and tending animals, the experience for the suffragists was violent. It is not easy to read about the treatment of the women but more unsettling still to visit the Lucy Burns Museum today, which offers both a polished historical presentation as the first part of the museum experience, but also a behind-the-curtain walkthrough of jail cells where Lucy Burns and Alice Paul, co-founders of the National Women’s Party, were force fed by jailers and threatened with commitment to an insane asylum.

Interior, Lucy Burns Museum. Inside the newly opened Lucy Burns Museum is a professionally produced exhibit using thematic sections to introduce viewers to the women’s suffrage movement, and to the specific women imprisoned here, including Lucy Burns and Alice Paul, co-founders of the National Woman’s Party. Burns spent more time in jail than any other American suffragist. The Night of Terror is described, detailing the beatings and torture the women received in 1917, after being arrested for picketing in front of the White House. Burns’ colleague and friend Alice Paul went on a hunger strike and was brutally force fed. News of the events at the Workhouse leaked out to the media, eventually helping to turn the tide for suffrage.
Suffer-Age Dress, Rhe’a Roland, printed paper, cotton and interfacing, 2019. The Lucy Burns Museum exhibits contain historic archival and material objects updated with works of art and history, including Rhe’a Roland’s Suffer-Age dress, which is created out of the political cartoons used to sway society away from women’s equality through the vote. Roland is an artist, costume maker and designer located in Washington, DC.

In the first decade of the new millennium, the D.C. Workhouse prison was reborn as the Workhouse Arts Center. Its large grass courtyard — you can’t get away from Jeffersonian architecture in Virginia — is surrounded by brick buildings and archways, containing entry points to a series of artist galleries and studios. In the furthest corner of the complex is the entry to the Lucy Burns Museum, which takes the place of an earlier museum collection focused more on prison history and less on the in/famous female prisoners. Opened just as the pandemic made its appearance in Virginia, the new museum functions with the tagline “From the White House to the Workhouse to the Ballot Box.” In the United States, the work of Burns, Alice Paul and so many more pushed for the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, ratified in Congress on August 26, 1920. Many museums around the country geared up for this special centennial event in 2020, creating museum exhibits of all sizes and shapes, from Washington, D.C.’s National Archives and the Library of Congress, to small venues at public history museums and historic sites, such as Library of Virginia and the Valentine Museum, both in Richmond, Virginia.

Located behind the Visitor Center is the entrance to the prison cells, which costs an extra $5.00 to tour. This area of the museum is old and original — a stark contrast to the new, updated and “glossy” exhibits in front. Most cells are empty, although a few are open so that visitors can “tour” the miniscule size of each concrete and steel space.

For many museums with presentations and programs focused on the centennial, exhibits were cut short in terms of public access. The Smithsonian and other national museums on the Mall in Washington, D.C. were open for a few months during the summer of 2020, but closed again due to rising COVID-19 numbers, in addition to social unrest and rioting due to the egregious murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Some museums which closed in the spring due to the pandemic never re-opened, while some museums, such as the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C. pivoted hard and took their exhibits outside — using exterior banners to share suffrage stories, rather than try and guess the pandemic’s path. The Lucy Burns Museum is a “permanent” exhibit at the Workhouse and will therefore outlast the many attempts by other American museums to capture and commemorate the centennial. It is a shame that the dual punch of pandemic and politics undermined the opportunity to refocus on women’s history.

One cell contains a dated but still effective display of a female suffragist undergoing force feeding. These mannequins hardly look silly, since the story is gory — blood splattered from the nose and mouth — and the women are represented through recorded voices which play at the press of a button. Four small-framed photographs of the prisoners rest close by.

In light of the assault on democracy from within, culminating with the hostile take-over of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2020, the resistance story of suffragists should be revived again and again, until these women’s stories are part of the everyday knowledge of American history. Museum exhibits such as the one provided at the Lucy Burns Museum are needed more than ever. Now, in the spring of 2021, museums in Washington, DC and Northern Virginia are now in the process of re-opening across the board and are waiting for your visit.

References:

Lucy Burns Museum, Souls born anew: the history of the D.C. workhouse at Lorton, Virginia, 1910–2001. Lorton, VA: Lucy Burns Museum.

Lucy Burns Museum, Remembering the ladies: from the White House to the Workhouse to the ballot box. Lorton, VA: Lucy Burns Museum.

Lucy Burns Museum [Online]. https://www.workhousearts.org/lucyburnsmuseum/

* About the Author

Laura A. Macaluso is a writer, curator, and independent scholar living in Alexandria, Virginia. Her work can be found at www.lauramacaluso.com and @monumentculture. She has a PhD in the Humanities / Cultural & Historic Preservation from Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island.

About Adventures in Preservation (AiP)

Adventures in Preservation (AiP) is a non-profit connecting people and preservation through enriching cultural heritage travel and hands-on education. AiP was founded in 2001 by two women with a great love of historic buildings and a strong desire to travel and understand the world. While perusing the travel section of the Boulder Bookstore, the Volunteer Vacation section suddenly brought everything into focus. Judith Broeker and Jamie Donahoe combined their goal of saving historic buildings with the concept of experiential travel, and created AiP’s hands-on preservation vacations.

Work started on several sites in the U.S., and as word spread, requests for help began to pour in from around the world, underscoring the great potential of using volunteers to restore historic buildings. In supporting community-based preservation initiatives, we discovered that our love of old buildings could translate into environmental and economic sustainability for communities.

AiP is picking up the pace! As our hands-on experiential travel becomes more popular, we have new projects, new partners and initiatives to keep you excited and involved.

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