Lucy Burns, 1879 – 1966
When the story of the woman suffrage movement is told there is no woman more devoted, who gave more of her personal freedom to the cause than Lucy Burns. She was the first on the picket line, the first and most frequently imprisoned and force-fed, and the brave and creative voice behind the words on the placards and banners that both stunned and enthralled a nation.
Born in Brooklyn July 28, 1879, her quiet early life gave no hint of the militant activist she would become. Her parents, Edward Burns and Anna Early Burns were devote Irish Catholics who held the then-unusual belief that the education of young women should be equal to that of young men. Lucy attended private school, graduated from Vassar, and went on to do graduate study at the Universities of Berlin and Bonn. A chance encounter in England with Alice Paul led to a firm friendship, one that would define her life and work.
Lucy and Alice joined whole-heartedly in the militant woman suffrage movement in England led by Emmeline Pankhurst, cutting their suffrage teeth on imprisonment and force feeding the government inflicted on the militant suffragettes there. After returning home they continued their work for the woman suffrage movement in the United States, eschewing the violence of the British movement, but adopting the British practice of holding the party in power responsible for failure to pass an Amendment to the Constitution, which was in direct conflict with the other suffrage leaders.
Lucy and Alice formed the Congressional Union, and worked tirelessly for the passage of the 19th Amendment. When the movement to picket the White House began in January, 1917, Lucy was the prime organizer of the campaign, and the voice behind the banners and placards demanding “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?,” and “Mr. President, What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage?” She spent more time in prison than any other suffragist, enduring the most abuse and working to keep the other prisoners spirits up.When victory came she could take real satisfaction in the fact that much of it was due to her efforts.
After the passage of the 19th Amendment Lucy retired from public life, and returned to her home in Brooklyn. She died in 1966. Each year the Lucy Burns Activist Award is given in her honor to someone in Brooklyn whose work makes a difference in the world of women’s rights.
Happy Birthday, Lucy Burns!
For more about Lucy Burns, check out Chapter 3 of my book, Long Island and the Woman Suffrage Movement.