Lucy Burns

Suffrage Activist

Lucy Burns about 1913
Lucy Burns about 1913. Courtesy US Library of Congress

Known for: key role in the militant wing of the American suffrage movement and in the final win of the 19th Amendment

Occupation: activist, teacher, scholar

Dates: July 28, 1879 - December 22, 1966

Background, Family:

  • Father: Edward Burns
  • Siblings: seven: Lucy was the fourth

Education:

  • Parker Collegiate Institute, formerly Brooklyn Female Academy, a preparatory school in Booklyn
  • Vassar College, graduated 1902
  • graduate work at Yale University, Universities of Bonn, Berlin and Oxford

More About Lucy Burns:

Lucy Burns was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1879. Her Irish Catholic family was supportive of education, including for girls, and Lucy Burns graduated from Vassar College in 1902.

Briefly serving as an English teacher at a public high school in Brooklyn, Lucy Burns spent several years in international study in Germany and then in England, studying linguistics and English.

Women's Suffrage in the United Kingdom

In England, Lucy Burns met the Pankhurts: Emmeline Pankhurst and daughters Christabel and Sylvia. She became involved in the more militant wing of the movement, with with the Pankhursts were associated, and organized by the Women's Social and Political Union (WPSU).

In 1909, Lucy Burns organized a suffrage parade in Scotland. She spoke publicly for suffrage, often wearing a small American flag lapel pin.

Arrested frequently for her activism, Lucy Burns dropped her studies to work full time for the suffrage movement as an organizer for the Women's Social and Political Union. Burns learned much about activism, and much, in particular, about press and public relations as part of a suffrage campaign.

Lucy Burns and Alice Paul

While at a police station in London after one WPSU event, Lucy Burns met Alice Paul, another American participant in the protests there.

The two became friends and co-workers in the suffrage movement, beginning to consider what might be the result of bringing these more militant tactics to the American movement, long stalled in its fight for suffrage.

The American Women's Suffrage Movement

Burns moved back to the United States in 1912. Burns and Alice Paul joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), then headed by Anna Howard Shaw, becoming leaders in the Congressional Committee within that organization. The two presented a proposal to the 1912 convention, advocating for holding whatever party was in power responsible for passing women's suffrage, making the party the target of opposition by pro-suffrage voters if they did not. They also advocated for federal action on suffrage, where the NAWSA had taken a state-by-state approach.

Even with the help of Jane Addams, Lucy Burns and Alice Paul failed to get approval of their plan. The NAWSA also voted not to support the Congressional Committee financially, though they did accept a proposal for a suffrage march during Wilson's 1913 inauguration, one which was infamously attacked and two hundred marchers were injured -- and which brought public attention back to the suffrage movement.

Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage

So Burns and Paul formed the Congressional Union -- still part of the NAWSA (and including the NAWSA name), but separately organized and funded. Lucy Burns was elected as one of the executives of the new organization. By April of 1913, NAWSA demanded tha the Congressional Union no longer use the NAWSA in the title. The Congressional Union was then admitted as an auxiliary of NAWSA.

At the 1913 NAWSA convention, Burns and Paul again made proposals for radical political action: with Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, the proposal would target all incumbents if they failed to support federal women's suffrage. President Wilson's actions in particular angered many of the suffragists: first he endorsed suffrage, then failed to include suffrage in his State of the Union address, then excused himself from meeting with representatives of the suffrage movement, and finally backed off from his support of federal suffrage action in favor of state-by-state decisions.

The working relationship of the Congressional Union and NAWSA was not successful, and on February 12, 1914, the two organizations officially split. NAWSA remained committed to state-by-state suffrage, including supporting a national constitutional amendment that would have made it simpler to introduce woman suffrage votes in the remaining states.

Lucy Burns and Alice Paul saw such support as half measures, and the Congressional Union went to work in 1914 to defeat Democrats in Congressional elections. Lucy Burns went to California to organize women voters there.

In 1915, Anna Howard Shaw had retired from the NAWSA presidency and Carrie Chapman Catt had taken her place, but Catt also believed in working state-by-state and in working with the party in power, not against it. Lucy Burns became editor of the Congressional Union's paper, The Suffragist, and continued to work for more federal action and with more militancy. In December of 1915, an attempt to bring the NAWSA and the Congressional Union back together failed.

Picketing, Protesting and Jail

Burns and Paul then began working to form a National Woman's Party (NWP), with a founding convention in June of 1916, with the primary goal of passing a federal suffrage amendment. Burns applied her skills as an organizer and publicist and was key to the work of the NWP.

The National Woman's Party began a campaign of picketing outside the White House. Many, including Burns, opposed the entry of the United States into World War I, and would not stop picketing in the name of patriotism and national unity. Police arrested the protestors, over and over, and Burns was among those sent to Occoquan Workhouse for protesting.

In jail, Burns continued to organize, imitating the hunger strikes of the British suffrage workers with which Burns was experienced. She also worked to organize the prisoners in declaring themselves political prisoners and demanding rights as such.

Burns was arrested for more protesting after she was released from jail, and she was in Occoquan Workhouse during the infamous "Night of Terror" when the women prisoners were subjected to brutal treatment and refused medical help.

After the prisoners responded with a hunger strike, the prison officials began force-feeding the women, including Lucy Burns, who was held down by five guards and a feeding tube forced through her nostrils.

Wilson Responds

The publicity around the treatment of the jailed women finally moved the Wilson administration to act. The Anthony Amendment (named for Susan B. Anthony), which would give women the vote nationally, was passed by the House of Representatives in 1918, though it failed in the Senate later that year. Burns and Paul led the NWP in resuming White House protests -- and more jailings -- as well as in working to support the election of more pro-suffrage candidates.

In May of 1919, President Wilson called a special session of Congress to consider the Anthony Amendment. The House passed it in May and the Senate followed in early June. Then the suffrage activists, including in the National Women's Party, worked for state ratification, finally winning ratification when Tennessee voted for the amendment in August, 1920.

Retirement

Lucy Burns retired from public life and activism. She was embittered at the many women, especially married women, who did not work for suffrage, and at those she thought were not sufficiently militant in support of suffrage. She retired to Brooklyn, living with two of her also-unmarried sisters, and raised the daughter of another of her sisters who died shortly after childbirth. She was active in her Roman Catholic Church. She died in Brooklyn in 1966.

Religion: Roman Catholic

Organizations: Congressional Union for Women Suffrage, National Woman's Party