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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,473

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This is the grave of Lucy Burns.

Born in 1879 in Brooklyn, Burns grew up in a well off Irish Catholic household. She went to the Brooklyn Female Academy for school, a prep school that pushed both liberal political ideas and finishing school touches. Burns then went on to Columbia and Vassar and I think she took a class or two at Yale. Vassar I assume was her home but it’s not entirely clear since that’s the main women’s college of that era in New York. In any case, she taught high school English in Brooklyn for a couple of years, but didn’t find it overly satisfying. She realized she liked learning a lot more than teaching. So she quite and went to Germany in 1906 to expand her language studies.

Burns was in school in both Bonn and Berlin from 1906 until 1909 and then went to Oxford to study English literature. In case you were wondering, her wealthy and patient father was paying for all of this. She was in England from 1909 until 1912. While there, she got to know the Pankhursts and became one of their followers in direct action militancy for women’s suffrage. They liked her a lot and invited her to work for their Women’s Society and Political Union. She dropped out of Oxford and did that from 1910 to 1912. She was arrested with them, organized protests in Scotland, represented the WSPU in Edinburgh, sold their newsletter, and was central in the organization’s plans to boycott the British census in 1911. Burns also was involved in property destruction, both outside of prison and then in destroying cells in prison. She went on hunger strikes. She was hardcore.

When Burns was part of a group trying to break up a government meeting led by Lloyd George (amusingly, when writing this I got confused between and Lowell George and had to double check who was who here), she got in a fight with a cop and thus got the harshest prison sentence of all the people there, which included another American, the today more famous Alice Paul. They actually met at a London police station for the first time, having both been arrested while working for different parts of the suffrage movement. They thought the American mainstream suffrage movement was extremely lame and compromising. So in 1912, they both returned to the U.S. to bring Pankhurst tactics to a nation very not prepared for them. They came back and became leaders in the National American Woman Suffrage Association shortly after. They wanted to turn the NAWSA into a militant leader of suffrage in America. That was not really OK with the more conservative and older leadership such as Anna Howard Shaw. They did have support–Jane Addams most notably. But relations between Burns and Paul on one hand and NAWSA leadership on the other were strained at best.

Burns and Paul then formed the Congressional Union, which was associated with NAWSA but only as little as Shaw could help. Burns especially wanted to attack Woodrow Wilson directly for his lack of support for the movement. She was an uncompromising militant. Wilson had stated he would support the movement. NAWSA then tried to schedule a meeting with him. Wilson then claimed he was sick, with about as much conviction as my students the night before a paper is due, and then a few days later reneged on his support. Burns was done at that point. Burns notably said “Inaction establishes just as clear a record as does a policy of open hostility” and urged NAWSA to cut off all ties to Wilson and work for his defeat in 1916. NAWSA wasn’t going to go that far. By the end of 1914, Burns and Paul had left the organization entirely.

Burns then joined Paul in founding the National Women’s Party in 1916 to be the radical direct action organization that made the older ladies in NAWSA nervous. Interestingly, the NWP only allowed women who already had the suffrage to be members. I don’t quite get this because there were lots of committed women in conservative states. But the goal was a constitutional amendment and I guess they felt this was the best strategy. I am sure further research would allow me to figure all this out, but time is a thing and this post is more than long enough.

In the NWP, Burns did almost everything. Paul is more famous, but Burns arguably did most of the work. Among her key tasks were Suffrage Schools, which trained women in direct action tactics. In short, she was the conduit between the Pankhursts in the UK and young activists in the US who wanted their vote no matter what. The NWP had one huge target–Woodrow Wilson. Burns’ disgust with Wilson did not decline over time. While the NAWSA feared that targeting Wilson would alienate convinceable Democrats, Burns did not care. He had lied and that is what mattered.

In 1917, Burns was arrested and put in prison for her tactics. She was sent to workhouses but lots of the legal system really didn’t want to force women like Burns into these prisons. Despite their politics, these women were wealthy, educated, and respectable in many ways. Here is where Burns’ training with the Pankhursts was critical. She had no problem with prison. Hunger strikes, organizing other women, she could raise hell in prison. And then when the prisons didn’t want to deal with her anymore, she would just openly break the law again and force the issue. Finally, a judge assigned her to the brutal Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. Here, the vicious guards wanted to hurt Burns and her friends. They used torture. This became known in the suffrage movement as the Night of Terror. They tied Burns hands above her head and basically hanged her that way from her prison cell. But she was such a strong leader that the rest of the prisoners joined her voluntarily. The guards just beat the shit out of Burns and many of the other women, including Dorothy Day. Some they knocked out; others suffered heart attacks during the beatings. Then there were the force feedings. Five guards held a resistant Burns downed and shoved a feeding tube up her nose, causing permanent damage to her nose.

But word about this soon got out and it created a huge wave of sympathy for these women and for suffrage in general (as for the women in this prison who had to deal with daily for other reasons, no one cared and the guards just kept torturing them). In fact, it laid the groundwork for Congress to finally take suffrage seriously and soon after, the bill started that sent the constitutional amendment to the states. But it took more protests, arrests, and suffering to see it through a hostile Congress.

After the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Burns was completely finished. She was completely, 100% burned out hard, and she also was bitter at women who didn’t fight for their own rights. She stated, “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.” Burns instead just became a good Catholic woman and for the last 46 years of life, dedicated herself to the Church. She also took care of an orphaned niece. It’s a little hard to wrap your head around this transition, but it’s definitely not unusual for organizers to burn out and retire. It’s a hard life! And Burns had sacrificed in very real ways. Better than Alice Paul in any case, who spent the rest of her life opposing labor legislation.

Burns died in 1966 in New York.

Lucy Burns is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other suffragists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Amalia Post, who was behind the push for Wyoming Territory’s pioneering suffrage law, is in Cheyenne, Wyoming and the New York suffragist Oreola Williams Haskell is in Brooklyn. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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