Alumna Creates Museum Exhibit to Inspire Appreciation for Suffragists

Posted: January 24, 2011 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: January 21, 2011 at 3:22 pm

By Catherine Ferraro

Located 25 miles south of Washington, D.C., the Occoquan Workhouse, now a historical site and museums in Lorton, Va., represents an important, and often unknown, era in women’s history.

Judy Kelly at museum

Alumna Judy Kelly stands next to the exhibit she designed for the Occoquan Workhouse Suffrage Museum. Photo courtesy of Judy Kelly

In 1917, women began picketing the White House as part of a campaign to win the right to vote. After being arrested, many of these women were brought to the Occoquan Workhouse, which was generally used to detain women arrested for soliciting, prostitution, disorderly conduct and drunkenness.

At the workhouse, the picketers were physically abused, forced if they refused to eat and made to live in filthy conditions.

As a tribute to these courageous women, Mason alumna Judy Kelly, who graduated in May 2010 with a Bachelor of Individualized Study (BIS) degree with a concentration in women’s social movements, created a permanent exhibit for the Women’s Suffrage Museum at the Occoquan Workhouse as a capstone project when she was a student. The museum stands on the same site where the suffragists were imprisoned.

“Torture at the Workhouse” sheds light on the grisly conditions in which the suffragists lived and how their actions helped contribute to the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

According to Kelly, who is the program assistant at Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Greater Prince William, since the exhibit was unveiled on March 31, 2010, there have been more than 10,000 visitors to the museums (a second museum is devoted to prison life).

“When I first visited the Occoquan Workhouse and museums, I noticed that there was very little evidence of the atrocities that occurred there in the early 1900s,” says Kelly. “It became very important to me to create an exhibit that would inspire the public, particularly young women, to appreciate the actions of the suffragists in helping to influence the freedoms we enjoy today.”

Kelly began the project by conducting extensive research on the time period and chose to focus the exhibit on some of the main leaders of the National Woman’s Party: Lucy Burns, Dora Lewis, Alice Paul and Rose Winslow.

These women were considered to be more radical than other suffragists when, in 1917 during the height of World War I, they picketed in front of the White House in an attempt to convince President Woodrow Wilson to take a greater interest in women’s rights.

The women were soon arrested and transferred to the Occoquan Workhouse. The women’s terms of imprisonment ranged from three days to seven months. For those who protested their imprisonment by refusing to eat, prison guards forcibly fed them by inserting a tube through their nose and into the esophagus.

When this treatment became public knowledge, President Wilson, prodded by extreme pressure and embarrassment, pardoned the suffragists in November 1917. It would take another three years until the 19th Amendment was finally ratified on Aug. 18, 1920.

When Kelly began planning her exhibit, she sought the advice of friends, colleagues and museum curators about the most effective ways to capture the intensity of the suffragists’ treatment through an exhibit. She even spent time at local museums watching visitors in action as they moved from one exhibit to the next.

“Through my observations, I learned that the average museum visitor gives an exhibit about 30 seconds before they move on,” says Kelly. “It was very important to me to create a simple display that could communicate a powerful message and engage a variety of senses.”

To make the exhibit as historically accurate as possible, Kelly examined photographs from the time period to help replicate the materials used in the exhibit. Then, Kelly scoured the area, going from basements in Baltimore to antique stores in Mount Vernon, Va., to find silver frames, tin cups, black lace-up shoes and coarse fabric that would help transport the visitor back to the year 1917.

At the heart of the exhibit is a depiction of a suffragist strapped to a wooden chair being forcibly fed by the prison matron and prison guard. The life-sized mannequins are enclosed behind bars in a prison cell, wearing clothes and makeup and using supplies indicative of the early 20th century.

On the walls surrounding the main display are storyboards that describe the time period, the force feeding and its significance. In addition, photographs of the four suffragists are displayed nearby and include information about their roles in the National Woman’s Party, their imprisonment and a personal quote about their experiences.

Accompanying the photographs are audio recordings of re-created conversations between the suffragists and the prison guards. Re-creating the suffragists’ voices was an important component of the exhibit, notes Kelly, because visitors can experience a deeper connection with the suffragists and better understand their pain and determination.

Visitors are invited to touch both the tube used in the force feeding and the rough fabric of the suffragist’s clothing. In addition, the colors of the suffrage flag — purple, white and gold — are carried through the display to unify the different parts of the exhibit.

“I hope this exhibit inspires people of all ages and genders to recognize that the efforts of these brave women happened not very long ago and that, although women have come a long way, we still have so much farther to go to gain equality,” says Kelly.

“If the suffragists’ actions shown in this exhibit encourage just one person to continue fighting for what they believe in, I will consider this project a success.”

More information about “Torture at the Workhouse” can be found here.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu