Lucy Burns, 1879-1966

  • Lucy-Burns-WWP

Woman Category: Activism & FeminismWoman Tags: 19th Amendment Centennial Anniversary and Suffragist

  • HerStory

    A suffrage leader and the co-founder of the National Woman’s Party.

    Lucy Burns was born in Brooklyn, New York to an Irish Catholic family. Her parents supported equal rights and believed in the educating of children of both sexes. She was always a gifted student, and after high school, she attended Packer Collegiate Institute, continued to Vassar College, and then to Yale University, where she specialized in linguistics. Afterward, she worked as an English teacher for two years before moving to Germany to resume her studies. At 27, she moved to England and attended Oxford University. After meeting the suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters and learning about women’s suffrage, she dropped out of University and started working with them in the Women’s Social and Political Union. For two years, she served as the WSPU Edinburgh organizer, mastering the art of street speaking, getting arrested, imprisoned, and even got the Hunger Strike Medal by the WSPU.
    Burns returned to the US in 1912 and wanted to replicate the British militant approach to the fight for a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. She and her friend Alice Paul joined the National American Women Suffrage Association and became the leaders of the organization Congressional Committee. Their militant tactic did not correlate with the NAWSA methods. The following year, the two activists formed a separate organization named the Congressional Union, which later became the National Woman’s Party. At the NWP, she filled any position needed, from chief organizer and orator, to lobby head, the architect of the banner campaign, and the editor of the organization newspaper “the Suffragist.” She formed a ‘suffrage schools’ where she taught women how to work with the press and how to run campaigns. She organized demonstrations and was arrested regularly. With her experience as a political prisoner, she outlined the rights and demands of political prisoners, such as attorneys, reading materials, and family visits.
    In 1917, while picketing in front of the White House, she was arrested for the third time and was given the maximum sentence of six months. On November 15, she was heavily beaten by the guards, and her arms were handcuffed above her head for the entire night. When she refused to eat, she was brutally forced-fed by inserting a tube up her nostrils. That night will later be known as the “Night of Terror.” After her release, she continued to fight for women’s right to vote vigorously.
    Upon the ratification of the 19th amendment on August 18, 1920, Burns was exhausted from the long struggle to women’s suffrage. She retired from political life, returned to NYC, and devoted herself to the Catholic Church. She passed away at the age of 87.

    “It is unthinkable that a national government which represents women should ignore the issue of the right of all women to political freedom.”

    “It is unthinkable that a national government which represents women should ignore the issue of the right of all women to political freedom.”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • She was the fourth of eight children.
    • She was known for her red hair and bright blue eyes.
    • She met her active companion Alice Paul in a London police station after both were arrested during a suffrage demonstration.
    • She never got married or had children.
    • She was the suffragist who spent the most time in jail.
    • The Lucy Burns Institute was named in her honor.
    • The Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, VA, the prison she was held in during the Night of Terror, is the location of The Lucy Burns Museum.
    • In the movie ‘Iron Jawed Angels’ (2004), Frances O’Connor played Burns’s character.
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  • More About Her Legacy
    Creations By and About Her:

    * Children's book about her


    * She was named an honoree by the National Women’s History Alliance (2020)

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Alice Paul & Lucy Burns: A Dynamic Duo of the Suffrage Movement

    This video highlights dynamic duos of the suffrage movement. Susan B. Anthony worked with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul worked with Lucy Burns (video 6), for the video tour of Paulsdale, Alice Paul's childhood home.

    Alice Paul led the final fight for women to get the right to vote through the 19th Amendment and wrote the Equal Rights Amendment, still never ratified to the constitution. Born at Paulsdale on January 11, 1885, Alice grew at the “home farm” Paulsdale. As a child, she often played on the house’s wrap-around porch and read under the broad canopy of the Copper Beech tree, which still shades the front yard.

    With Paulsdale closed due to the pandemic, the staff is releasing a video tour for visitors to enjoy! 2020 marks 100 years since women won the right to vote, and the Alice Paul Institute is committed to sharing Alice Paul's history throughout the year and long into the future.

    Social distancing and proper health precautions were taken in the release of this video tour.

  • Burns in one of the most famous picture of the suffrage movement. While she in the in Occoquan jail. Photo credit - LOC