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Burns, Lucy

in: People

Lucy Burns (1879 – 1966) – Suffragette and Militant Activist on Behalf of Women’s Rights


Lucy Burns, Vice Chairman Congressional Union, 1913
Lucy Burns, Vice Chairman Congressional Union, 1913
Photo: Library of Congress

Introduction: Lucy Burns was an American suffragette and women’s rights advocate. She was a close friend of Alice Stokes Paul. Together, they formed the National Woman’s Party, the militant wing of the women’s suffrage movement that utilized picketing and public demonstrations to gain popular attention for the right of women to vote in the United States. Burns was born in Brooklyn, New York to an Irish Catholic family. She studied at Vassar College and Yale University in the United States and the University of Berlin in Germany and Oxford College in England. While a student at Oxford College in Cambridge, Burns witnessed the militancy of the British suffrage movement.

Advocate for Women’s Rights: Burns’ first major experiences with activism on behalf of women’s issues were with Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters in the United Kingdom. She was so inspired by their activism and charisma that she dropped her graduate studies in 1909 to stay with them and work in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), an organization dedicated to fighting for women’s rights in the United Kingdom. Burns was employed by the Women’s Social and Political Union as a salaried organizer from 1910 to 1912. While working with the Pankhursts, Lucy Burns became increasingly passionate about activism and participated in numerous campaigns. One of her first major contributions was organizing a parade in Edinburgh as part of the campaign in Scotland in 1909. Her activism resulted in numerous court appearances and reports of “disorderly conduct” in the newspapers.

While working with the WSPU, Lucy Burns met Alice Paul at a London police station. Both women had been arrested for demonstrating, and Alice Paul introduced herself when she noticed that Lucy Burns was wearing an American flag pin on her lapel. The women discussed their suffrage experiences in the United Kingdom and the American women’s movement. Burns and Paul bonded over their frustration with the inactivity and ineffective leadership of the American suffrage movement. Their similar passions and fearlessness in the face of opposition led them to become good friends. Both women were passionate about activism, and the feminist struggle for equality in the UK and pledged to continue the struggle in the United States.

Returning to the United States (Paul in 1910, Burns in 1912), the two women worked first with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) as leaders of its Congressional Committee. Their first activity on behalf of NAWSA was to organize a massive national suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913. The parade was modeled on the elaborate suffrage pageants held in Britain and local marches organized in New York by the Women’s Political Union (WPU). The March 3, 1913, parade coincided with President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration and put the president-elect and Congress on notice that NAWSA would hold the Democratic Party responsible if it failed to pass a women’s suffrage amendment. Bands, floats, and more than 8,000 marchers participated, representing nearly every state and most occupations.

In 1914, dissatisfied with the direction and leadership of the NAWSA Lucy Burns and Alice Paul led a group of women out of the NAWSA and formed a new organization: the Congressional Union (CU). In 1916, the CU was renamed the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Lucy Burns was a versatile and pivotal figure within the NWP and a crucial source of support behind Alice Paul, her friend and colleague. Beginning in January 1917, Burns was a driving force in support of NWPs picketing of President Woodrow Wilson’s administration in Washington, D.C. Burns was arrested while picketing the White House and was sent to Occoquan Workhouse. Declaring that suffragettes were political prisoners, she was among those in the Occoquan Workhouse who instigated hunger strikes in October 1917 and subsequently placed in solitary confinement. Jailed again when protesting the treatment of the imprisoned Alice Paul, Burns joined Paul and others in another round of Occoquan hunger strikes. Burns was in Occoquan for what became known as the “Night of Terror” on November 15, 1917, during which she was beaten and her arms were handcuffed above her head in her cell. Particularly brutal force-feeding soon followed. After her release, Burns commenced nationwide speaking tours on behalf of women’s right to vote.

Lucy Burns in the Occoquan Workhouse. November 1917
Lucy Burns in the Occoquan Workhouse. November 1917.
Photo: Library of Congress

The NWP’s militant tactics and the public support its members garnered from their imprisonment, combined with persistent, low-key lobbying, eventually forced President Wilson to endorse the 19th Amendment on January 9, 1918. The next day, it passed in the House of Representatives and on June 4, the U.S. Senate endorsed the amendment. The enactment of the amendment initiated a 14-month campaign for ratification by 36 states. During this time the NWP sent national organizers into key states to help local NWP members coordinate ratification efforts. Finally, on August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment. Unlike Alice Paul, who remained active in the NWP until her death, Burns retired from public campaigns with the success of the 19th Amendment. She spent the rest of her life working with the Catholic Church.

This information is adapted from

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J. (2011). Lucy Burns (1879-1966): Suffragette and militant activist on behalf of women’s rights. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from

9 Replies to “Burns, Lucy”

    • Ms. Montgomery: It is difficult to answer your question because the contents were copied from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. The Wikipedia history of Lucy Burns contains a ton of resources that reflect Ms. Burns contributions to social welfare. If it is important to learn the date of the Wikipedia entry my suggestion is to raise the question to Wikipedia. Regards, JEH

    • Ajla Kuc: The entry we prepare re: Lucy Burns is from Wikipedia, therefore it must be considered a secondary source at least. If you review the full history on the Wikipedia site you will find a wide range of sources of additional information about Lucy Burns. Good luck, JEH

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