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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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