Lucy Burns, Fighter for Women's Suffrage

December 22nd, 2020, marked the 121st birthday of heroic women’s rights fighter Lucy Burns. Today, few remember Burns and take a woman’s right to vote for granted, forgetting that a century ago women were denied this basic American freedom. They also forget that women like Burns were imprisoned and brutalized in their struggle to obtain equality. Burns’ inspirational story of repeated imprisonment and abuse during incarceration reminds us of the painful struggle of women like Burns to achieve their rights.

Born in 1879 in Brooklyn into a wealthy Irish-American family, Burns was the fourth of seven children and an unlikely candidate to be a militant. Like many upper-class Brooklyn women, Burns was educated at Packer Collegiate Institute, which prided itself on "teaching girls to be ladies," stressing religious education, while also teaching women to think critically. At a time when very few women went to college, Burns, a brilliant student, attended Columbia University, Vassar College, and Yale, where she got a degree in English literature. Burns became a high school English teacher at Brooklyn’s most prestigious school of its day, Erasmus Hall, but she decided after two years to return to university and pursue graduate studies.

A gifted linguist, Burns went to Germany and studied at the Universities of Bonn and Berlin from 1906 to 1909. She then decided to study English at Oxford University where she met the charismatic British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst, who was widely criticized for her militant tactics. Burns was so taken with Pankhurst and her methods that she dropped her studies and became a suffragist, toiling in the struggle for British women’s rights. From 1910 to 1912, Burns worked as a suffrage organizer in Scotland. Frequently arrested, Burns was imprisoned four times. In one protest, Lucy took part in a stunt at the London Lord Mayor’s Ball, mingling with guests, then, approaching Winston Churchill before unfurling a hidden banner and shouting at him "How can you dine here while women are starving in prison?"

Burns met fellow American suffragette Alice Paul in a London police station after both were arrested during a demonstration outside Parliament. They became friends and decided that upon returning to the United States they would work together. Their shared passion and fearlessness in the face of opposition quickly forged an indelible bond between the two women.

Though they shared much, Burns and Paul differed greatly. They were opposites in appearance and temperament. Paul was physically fragile, while Burns was tall and curvaceous, exuding vigor. Paul was the militant; Burns, the diplomat. Unlike Paul, who was petulant and quarrelsome, Burns had an Irish charm and ability to find common ground. Despite these stark differences, Paul and Burns worked together so seamlessly that suffragists often described them as having "one mind and spirit." Paul though described Burns as "always more valiant than I was, about a thousand times more valiant by nature."

Returning in 1912, Burns and Paul joined the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), then headed by Anna Howard Shaw, whose caution angered the two firebrands. Burns and Paul presented a proposal to the 1912 Women’s Suffrage Convention, pushing to hold responsible whatever political party held power for passage of women's suffrage, making the party the target of opposition by pro-suffrage voters if they did not. Burns and Paul also differed with other women on tactics, pushing suffrage work on a federal, not state level. Despite gaining the backing of revered reformer Jane Addams, Burns and Paul failed to gain approval of their plan. One of their last acts in the NAWSA was staging a protest parade the day prior to Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Burns was particularly infuriated with President Wilson because he had told them he would support the Committee on Suffrage, but then never mentioned his promise in his State of the Union speech.

Known for her fiery temperament and charismatic speeches, Burns gained the admiration and respect of her fellow members, such as author and journalist Inez Haynes Irwin, who described Burns in her history of the NWP, "The Story of The Woman's Party" (1921): “She is a woman of twofold ability. She speaks and writes with equal eloquence and elegance. Her speeches before Suffrage bodies, her editorials in the Suffragist are models of clearness; conciseness; of the accumulative force of expression. Mentally and emotionally, she is quick and warm. Her convictions are all vigorous and I do not think Lucy Burns would hesitate for a moment to suffer torture, to die, for them. She has intellectuality of a high order, but she overruns with a winning Irishness which supplements that intellectuality with grace and charm; social mobility of extreme sensitiveness and swiftness.”

Fed up with Shaw and her timidity, in April 1913, Burns and Paul founded the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU). Impatient with the movement’s lack of clear goals and timid tactics, Paul next announced a radical new plan for 1916—she wanted to organize a woman's political party, the National Women’s Party. The NWP called for a constitutional amendment that would ensure women’s suffrage throughout the entire United States, while the more popular NAWSA lobbied for state-level referenda. Burns and Paul committed themselves to direct action in fighting for women's rights and, particularly, their right to vote.

Burns organized a campaign in the West serving as NWP legislative chairman in Washington, D.C. and editing the organization’s weekly journal, The Suffragist. Beginning in January 1917, she organized daily picketing of the White House. In June, Burns held up a banner, addressed to visiting Russian envoys, in front of the White House that declared America was deceiving them and was not a democracy because President Wilson denied women the right to vote. The message angered the President, and Burns was arrested later in the month when she held up a similar banner, which was the beginning of a long series of arrests. When America entered World War I, many began to view the suffragist protests as unpatriotic. Bystanders sometimes attacked the women and ripped their signs from their hands, while Wilson himself wrote to his daughter stating that the suffragists “seem bent on making their cause as obnoxious as possible.” Burns, however, never faltered in her commitment to direct action to achieve women’s suffrage.

Burns figured prominently in one of the most infamous events in the NWP’s history: the November 15, 1917 incarceration in the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, which would later be called “the Night of Terror.” Burns and other NWP members had been jailed for picketing the White House. Because it was her third arrest, Burns was given the maximum sentence of six months. Upon arriving at the prison, the suffragists went on a hunger strike, declaring themselves political prisoners. Hoping to break the women, prison guards brutally beat and terrorized them to force them to eat. When Burns refused to stop calling roll to check on the condition of protesters in other cells, the guards handcuffed her arms over her head, leaving her in agony for the whole night. Burns was so loved and respected by her fellow inmates that in solidarity they also held their hands above their head and stood in the same position. Burns was later violently force-fed and held in solitary confinement.

Her spirited defiance during the November 1917 workhouse incident would symbolize her career in the NWP. After the workhouse, Burns returned to fighting for suffrage. She toured the nation, giving speeches while continuing to picket and get arrested. Burns worked in virtually every aspect of the NWP at one time or another, serving as a chief organizer, head lobbyist, editor, suffrage educator, orator, and mastermind of the banner campaign.

When her dream of women’s suffrage was finally achieved in 1920 with the 19th Amendment, Burns retired. A report quoted her saying, “I don't want to do anything more. I think we have done all this for women, and we have sacrificed everything we possessed for them, and now let them fight for it now. I am not going to fight anymore.”

Burns gave up activism and returned to Brooklyn, where she dedicated her life to her family and faith, spending the rest of her life working for the Catholic Church. She died in 1966. In 2004, HBO Films broadcast Iron Jawed Angels depicting the activism of Burns, Paul, and other suffragists. Burns was portrayed by Australian actress Frances O’Connor. In January of this year, the Lucy Burns Museum opened, ironically at the former site of the Occoquan Workhouse in Lofton, Virginia, where the "Night of Terror" took place. The exhibits commemorate the activism and sacrifices of suffragists. The museum is a fitting tribute to this brave Irish American from Brooklyn.

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Tags: 20th Century, Activism, Suffrage, United States, Women


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