Lucy Burns was one of the leading suffragists in America in the early part of the 20th century. Due to her militant campaigning and continual bravery, even when under attack from the criminal justice system, she was one of the key figures who contributed in bringing about the Nineteenth Amendment (also known as the Susan B. Anthony amendment). The Amendment prohibits any United States citizen to be denied the right to vote on the basis of their sex. It had first been introduced to Congress in 1878 and it was approved 41 years later and became part of the Constitution in 1920.  

Born in 1879 in Brooklyn, Lucy Burns was an the fourth of seven children. Initially educated at Vassar, upon her graduation in 1902 she went on to work at Yale before leaving the USA to work at Universities across Europe. Whilst studying on the continent, Lucy travelled to the UK where, like many others, she was deeply inspired by the militant tactics of Emmeline Pankhurst. She left her graduate studies to work for Women’s Social and Political Union from 1909 until 1912, and was eventually awarded the Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union for bravery.

It was in London that Lucy met fellow American Alice Paul. Lucy and Alice met in a police station after a WPSU event and the pair bonded over their frustration at the lack of progress being made in their home country in securing votes for all women. Upon returning to the USA in 1912, Lucy began campaigning for votes for women alongside Alice and they both joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) which was led by Anna Howard Shaw.

Both women did not agree with the tactics which were being used to challenge the political establishment to secure votes for women. Through activism on the state level, a very small number of states permitted women the right to vote and Burns and Paul believed that these women could and should form a powerful voting bloc against candidates who did not support their cause – this would force candidates from both main political parties to include women’s suffrage as part of their campaign for office. The NAWSA was split on this issue which led to Paul and Burns’ proposal being diluted, however the NAWSA did concede to hold a suffrage parade during Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. This was the first suffragist parade in Washington DC and gained significant media attention.

Despite their negotiations, this divide within the NAWSA did continue to be a barrier to progress within the party. As a result, Burns and Paul formed an adjacent committee named Congressional Union of the National American Woman Suffrage Association but, due to continuing friction over the militant tactics they wished to use, the parties formally split in February 1914.

In 1916, Paul proposed forming the National Woman’s Party and, with support from Lucy Burns, the new party official came into being in June of that year. The aims of the party were to secure rights (including votes) for women through direct action. Burns had a major role within the NWP, and was especially impressive at briefing the media on the activities of the organisation.

One of the major protests which the NWP held was in January 1917 where the members, known as the Silent Sentinels, directed their attacks at politician Woodrow Wilson. Many of the women who protested, along with Burns, were arrested and sent to Occoquan Workhouse following their protest. Burns continued to organise the women within prison, but once the authorities began to realise the effect her actions were having she was transferred to solitary confinement. Whilst in the Workhouse, Burns also created what is believed to be the first document which defined the status and rights of political prisoners.

Later in 1917 Burns was arrested along with 33 other women whilst protesting, she was jailed for a maximum sentence and, again, incarcerated at Occoquan Workhouse. Upon arriving at the prison, the women were subjected to physical abuse and acts of violence from the prison guards and refused medical attention. When Burns attempted to organise the women she was subjected to further acts of violence. This event became known as the Night of Terror and for the following three days the women went on hunger strike. Believing Burns to be the cause of the unrest, the prison moved her into solitary confinement where she was force fed.

When news of how the women were treated appeared in the press it created more support for the Suffrage movement and the NWP continued to protest. On 21 May 1919 the House of Representatives passed the Susan B. Anthony amendment 304 to 89, and on June 4, the Senate passed it 66 to 30. The next year the amendment was ratified by the requisite number of states. Finally, after eight years of campaigning, the Constitution had been changed.

Lucy left politics and returned to Brooklyn. After the death of her sister in childbirth in 1923, she committed herself to raising her newborn niece. Lucy died in Brooklyn, New York in December 1966.

References include: The National Woman’s PartyWomen’s History, Britannica, The Lucy Burns Institute and Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign by Katherine H. Adams, Michael L. Keene (2007). ©The Heroine Collective 2015 – Present, All Rights Reserved.
Sara Sherwood

Written by Sara Sherwood

Sara works in theatre and lives in London. She spends the majority of her time thinking about celebrity culture and the wives of 19th century politicians.

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By Photographs from the Records of the National Woman's Party / Harris & Ewing, Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress / [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons