March is Irish-American Heritage Month as well as Women’s History Month. As discussed in our Ex Libris Juris blog post on 3/8/2021, the Women’s History Month theme for 2021 is “Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to be Silenced.” In recognition of all these things, today’s post features famous Irish-American suffragist Lucy Burns.
Lucy Burns was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1879, to a “large Irish Catholic family.” She graduated from Vassar College in 1902, and then went to graduate school at Oxford College, in England. While there, she met Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a “militant” suffrage organization in Britain. Burns left school and became an activist with Pankhurst, from 1909-1912.
Returning to America in 1912, Burns and Alice Paul, a fellow suffragist she met in Britain, joined the Congressional Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In that organization, Burns and Paul “launched a campaign of fundraising, marches, petition drives, and publicity stunts in support of the amendment [to give women the right to vote],” including a Woman Suffrage Procession on “March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration.”
But in April 1913, due to power struggles at NAWSA, Burns and Paul “founded the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU), which evolved into the NWP [National Women’s Party].” Burns “served as NWP legislative chairman in Washington, D.C., and, beginning in April 1914, edited the organization’s weekly journal, The Suffragist.”
For various actions, Burns “was arrested and imprisoned six times,” including the time she led “the NWP’s most prominent and controversial campaign.” This involved picketing the White House for months, starting in January 1917. “On June 22, 1917, suffrage pickets began to be arrested on the technical charge of obstructing traffic,” including Lucy Burns. One of her prison stays occurred during the “‘Night of Terror’ at the Occoquan Workhouse on November 14-15, 1917,” where she and others were subjected to various and horrific forms of torture.
Burns and the other members of the NWP continued protesting after being released from prison, and they “planned tours around the country to tell their stories, including the ‘Prison Special’ tour in early 1919.” Later that same year, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which “became part of the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920.”
Following the passage of the 19th Amendment, Burns “retired from public campaigns” and is reported to have said: “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.”