Women We Celebrate

Lucy Burns

1879–1966


Between 1913 and 1920, Lucy Burns was one of the most significant leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. She was arrested six times in the U.S., and spent more time in prison than any other suffragist.

Born in Brooklyn, New York on July 28, 1879, Burns received her B.A. in English at Vassar College, studied etymology at Yale University and attended the University of Berlin in Germany. In 1909, while studying at Oxford College in Cambridge, England, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union to work for the suffrage movement in Britain. She met Alice Paul in a police station in London when both were arrested while protesting at Parliament. They became fast friends, and worked together as assistants to Emmeline Pankhurst. Lucy returned to the U.S. in 1912 and joined Paul on the Congressional Committee for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

In April 1913, Paul and Burns founded the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU), which later became the National Woman’s Party. At a meeting in August 1914, Burns suggested the organization refuse to support Democratic candidates, even those in favor of suffrage, with the idea of holding the party in power responsible. Burns held several roles within the Congressional Union including organizer for the campaigns in the West in 1914 and 1916, as NWP legislative chairman in Washington, D.C., and as editor of The Suffragist beginning in April 1914. In the spring of 1916, while campaigning in Seattle, Burns dropped leaflets announcing the June convention from an airplane. She admitted that “forgot all about suffrage and votes for women” during the exciting flight.

On December 4, 1916, Burns, along with four other women, took strategic positions in the front row of the visitors’ gallery during President Wilson’s formal address to Congress. They unfurled a banner that read, “Mr. President, What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage?” In January, 1917, Burns orchestrated the pickets in front of the White House, leading many of the protests herself. On June 20, 1917, targeting the Russian envoys visiting President Wilson, she and Dora Lewis held a large banner in front of the White House that stated: “To the Russian envoys: We the women of America tell you that America is not a democracy. Twenty million American women are denied the right to vote. President Wilson is the chief opponent of their national enfranchisement…Tell our government it must liberate its people before it can claim free Russia as an ally.” The angry crowd destroyed the banner, but despite the crowds’ attacks, Burns arrived two days later with Katharine Morey carrying a similar banner; they were arrested for obstructing traffic.

Burns wrote that going to prison for picketing would be “the last whack of a hammer…” She served more time in jail than any other suffragists in America. She was arrested in June 1917 and sentenced to 3 days; arrested in September, 1917 and sentenced to 60 days; arrested on November 10, 1917 and sentenced to 6 months; arrested in January, 1919 during the watchfire demonstrations, and served one 3 day and two 5 day sentences. In October 1917, declaring their status as political prisoners, Burns and 13 other suffragists, initiated a hunger strike at Occoquan Workhouse to protest the unjust treatment of Alice Paul. Her strike lasted almost three weeks before she was force-fed. On November 15, 1917, Burns was in Occoquan during the “Night of Terror,” when she was beaten for calling out to the other inmates and her arms were handcuffed above her head in her prison cell. After her release in 1919, she served as the manager of the “Prison Special” speaking tour, to bring attention to the plight of imprisoned suffragists.

In 1920, exhausted from constant campaigning, Lucy declared at a meeting that she would fight no more and said, “…we have done all this for women, and we have sacrificed everything we possessed for them.” She was not present when Paul unfurled the victory banner at headquarters. Burns spent the rest of her life in Brooklyn, caring for her family and working with the Catholic Church. One of the bravest and most militant members of the National Woman’s Party, Lucy Burns’ articulate speeches, supreme leadership and brilliant strategizing greatly contributed to the achievement of woman suffrage.

Other Resources:

Stevens, Doris. Jailed for Freedom. New York: Boni and Liveright Publishers, 1920.

Ford, Linda. Iron-Jawed Angels: The Suffrage Militancy of the National Woman’s Party, 1912-1920. New York: University Press of America, 1991.