March is Women’s History Month and is a great time to learn about the women who came before us. I’ve always been fascinated with the women suffragists who fought for a woman’s right to vote and was excited to learn about a museum in Virginia that focuses on their struggle, the Lucy Burns Museum at the Workhouse Arts Center.
The Lucy Burns Museum opened in the former Lorton Prison in Northern Virginia after it was turned into the Workhouse Arts Center in 2008. The prison served as Washington, DC’s prison/workhouse for 91 years, beginning in 1910. It was created as part of a prison reform movement, teaching the prisoners agricultural trades ranging from dairy farming to hog ranching. At one point, the cows at the prison provided all of the milk for DC school students!
Some of the prison’s most famous inmates were the women suffragists who picketed in front of the White House in 1917. In November of that year, 73 women from the National Woman’s Party were arrested and taken to the prison (then called the Occoquan Workhouse). While incarcerated during this “night of terror,” they went on a hunger strike and were horrifically force-fed by the authorities and handcuffed in a brutal way. Lucy Burns was one of the leaders of these women and ended up being the most imprisoned suffragist.
The prison closed in 1988, and by the early 2000s, most of the land had been sold off to developers. The remaining buildings were converted to an art space and now include the Lucy Burns Museum.
The museum is located in the back right corner of the existing prison buildings. The other buildings have been turned into art studios and are fun to explore.
The museum is free but there is a $5 charge for the prison tour. Be sure to ask for the scavenger hunt at the front desk for your little one (includes a Girl Scout badge!).
You can wander in the main lobby to learn more about the prison itself. The tour guide told me so much about the facility and its history. There’s a good map that shows you the adjacent park with its suffragist memorial that includes an actual piece of the fence from the protests at the White House.
The adjacent room is dedicated to the history of the suffrage movement.
I loved the statues of Lucy Burns, Alice Paul, and Dora Lewis.
Your children can even try on a suffragist sash!
They’ll like flipping the pictures on the back of the informational exhibits to learn about the women and how they worked for the right to vote. This is especially powerful to read for women and girls – the legacy we have been handed!
The end exhibit is about women’s right to vote around the world. It is fascinating – and sobering.
The museum is a mixture of learning about the prison and about the suffrage movement. There are a few exhibits about the prison in the lobby about the prison, and you can also take a guided tour of the cells. My guide was excellent and so knowledgeable. This tour is recommended for older kids (middle school and up).
Walk through a door, and you’re transported to what the rooms looked like as a prison. It’s quite eerie!
You’ll learn about what the prison was like and why it was closed. You can also see some of the farm equipment the inmates used.
In one of the cells, you can see mannequins dressed as the suffragists who were force-fed a mixture of milk and raw eggs through a tube inserted in the nose. It is horrifying to think of how painful this was, and younger children may not want to view the mannequins.
Before you leave, be sure to check out the gift shop!
And before you drive away, walk behind the complex to get a view of the prison watchtower still standing.
The Lucy Burns Museum is a great place to learn about one of the most pivotal times in women’s history – when women in the United States asked President Woodrow Wilson, “Mr. President, how long must we wait?” We all owe a debt of gratitude to these women!
- Cost: Museum is free; guided cell tour is $5
- Recommended: 10 and up
- Tour time: 30-45 minutes; longer with cell tour
- Gift shop located onsite
- Transportation: Only accessible by car, the museum has plenty of available parking.
- Dining options: The quaint river town, Occoquan, is a short drive away and has several restaurants – check out its tourism site for ideas!
- Nearby hotels: You’ll find a bunch of hotels near the Potomac Mills shopping center (a short drive away) – see the suggestions by the county’s tourism site. Or the museum is an easy day trip from a hotel in Washington, DC. See my Washington guide for ideas.
- Nearby attractions include: Occoquan Regional Park, Occoquan, National Museum of the United States Army, George Mason’s Gunston Hall, and the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument (another women’s suffrage historical site in Washington, DC)
- For more women’s history sites, be sure to check out my state-by-state review here
Books to Read:
Images are Amazon affiliate links. Also check out my women’s history list at Bookshop.org which supports independent bookstores and creators.