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poetry Occoquan’s Nights of Terror

In this week of International Women’s Day, poet Philip C. Kolin remembers the courage of US women in demanding the right to vote.

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


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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.