A Woman to Know: Lucy Burns

It is unthinkable that a national government which represents women should ignore the right of all women to political freedom. — Lucy Burns

(image via Library of Congress)


Lucy formed the National Women's Party in 1916, with her partner-in-crime, Alice Paul. And I mean they were partners in literal crime – that same year, police arrested Alice and Lucy (and their followers) for picketing the White House. Their group called themselves "The Silent Sentinels" for their non-violent protest. They stood outside the White House wearing white, holding signs asking "Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?" They were arrested for "obstructing sidewalk traffic."

They ended up in the Occoquan Workhouse, a jail notorious for its cruel treatment of political activists. Lucy led a hunger strike in jail that threatened to start an uprising — in front of all the other suffragists, the warden forced a feeding tube up her nostrils, an effort requiring five prison guards in assistance. When that didn't shut her up, he ordered her handcuffed in a painfully twisted position, wrists raised above her head and clamped to the cell door behind her. In a sign of solidarity, the other women stood with their hands in the same position, refusing to back down until they were heard.

Facing political pressure from all sides, President Woodrow Wilson announced his formal support of the amendment in 1918. The group was released from the Workhouse, but Lucy would find herself arrested again and again. Of all the suffragists advocating for the amendment, she found herself in the most trouble throughout the movement's timeline.

In 1920, Lucy and Alice raced to meet the vote count needed for the 19th Amendment to be considered in the House. After multiple failed attempts to meet the vote count necessary, and numerous fears the amendment would fail state ratification, Lucy didn't dare to hope for her life's work to see fulfillment in her lifetime — but in August 1920, the 19th Amendment was added to the Constitution, and women won the right to vote.

Soon after the celebrations, she retired from politics altogether, moving to Brooklyn and hiding herself from the spotlight. Alice and other suffragists would go on to lauded careers in politics and activism, but Lucy was content to pass the torch to the next generation of young feminists.

"I think we have done all this for women, and we have sacrificed everything we possessed for them, and let them fight for it now," she said. "I am not going to fight anymore."

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