poetry Occoquan’s Nights of Terror
Occoquan’s Nights of Terror
By Philip C. Kolin
Incarceration of suffragettes at Washington, DC’s workhouse, Lorton, VA, 1917
History will remember them, those women
in bell-shaped skirts and broad brimmed
straw hats carrying posters filled with frill-less
solemn words demanding the right to vote
in Woodrow Wilson's America. They picketed
the White House six days a week and went on
hunger strikes to speak for two million
unfranchised voices. Phallic columns fought
to silence them. Thirty-three suffragettes
were shut up in the Occoquan Workhouse to show how
alienable their rights were; beaten, clubbed,
heads smashed against walls to teach them
to be silent. Male guards showed Lucy Burns
how to stand up for women’s rights
by stripping her, chaining her up by her hands,
and forcing her to be on her feet for hours.
When Lucy Branham refused to eat, the work-
house doctor shoved a tube down her nose
until the liquid food poured from her mouth.
The Occoquan diet--raw eggs, rats and maggots--
had the same effect on other inmates.
But their voices won out over the Occoquan terrors.
In three short years, they rewrote the Constitution
adding what the Founding Fathers had left out--
women must be numbered in We the People.
Philip C. Kolin is the Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus and Editor Emeritus of the Southern Quarterly. He has published 14 poetry collections, including Emmett Till in Different States, Reaching Forever: Poems, Delta Tears Poems, Wholly God's:Poems, and forthcoming from Third World Press Mapping Trauma: Poems about Black History.
Spread the word