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Suffragette Movement: Lucy Burns on Women’s Work

Lucy Burns (1879-1966)

Lucy Burns on the quilt Women's Work, stands in the foreground holding a sign in front of her that reads "Votes for Women". She wears a white dress with a blue stripe sailor collar.

Lucy Burns, voting rights activist.

Lucy Burns, a key figure in the Suffragette Movement, appears on the Women’s Work Quilt at the very front, holding a large protest sign that reads, “VOTES FOR WOMEN”.  She was a dynamic force in the National Women’s Party.  Her courage and sacrifice helped lead to the passage of the 19th amendment.

An Apt Scholar

 Lucy was born in Brooklyn, New York into an Irish Catholic family in 1879. She had a quick mind, an engaging spirit, and a gift for language.  After attending Packer Collegiate Institute where she received instruction in social graces and religion, Lucy went on to study at Columbia University, Vassar College, and Yale University.  She earned a teaching degree and taught English at Erasmus High School in Brooklyn for two years, but had a strong desire to continue her own studies. She was lucky to have a father who encouraged, and financed her education.  Lucy headed abroad to study at the University of Berlin in Germany, and Oxford University in England.  She used her linguistic skills to charm audiences with her spoken, and written words. 

Trading Education for Experience in the Suffragette Movement

In England, Lucy learned about the suffragette movement.  She abandoned her studies and took up the cause.  Lucy practiced her skills and became an eloquent “Street Speaker” who was arrested four times for being a public nuisance.  While in jail, she met and became good friends with another American, Alice Paul.

Together, they brought the militant tactics they had learned in England to the suffragette movement in the US. However, as members of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, they were impatient with progress and split to form a new group that eventually became the National Women’s Party (NWP).

The Suffragette Movement: Silent Sentinels at the White House

suffragette movement deploys women to line up in front of White House to pressure Pres. Wilson to support 19th amendment inspired the presentation of Lucy on the Women's Work quilt holding a picket sign.

Silent Sentinels picket the White House

Suffragette Movement Women hold large banner on display when dignitaries visit.

Large banners for special visits.

Lucy organized protests and edited The Suffragist, a weekly NWP journal.  A key player in organizing the “Silent Sentinels”, Lucy oversaw more than 1000 women who picketed in front of the White House during the Wilson administration.  When important dignitaries visited the President, Lucy made sure that extra large banners with messages such as, “America is not a free democracy as long as women were denied the right to vote.” we’re prominently on display.

Woodrow Wilson found the protests irritating.  In a letter to his daughter he wrote  that these women “seem bent on making their cause as obnoxious as possible.” He also encouraged the police to crack down on the demonstrators.  Police brutality increased, and they began arresting the women for charges such as “obstructing passage on the sidewalk.”

Lucy Burns was taken to this three story stone building, along with other suffragettes, in paddy wagons.

Suffragettes taken to prison for protesting at White House.

Officers took the women to the Occoquan Workhouse, outside of Washington, DC.  Conditions were dire.  There were maggots in the food, the water was dirty, and the bedding was filthy.   Arrested six times, Lucy never backed down.  She led a hunger strike within the jail.  For this, the warden put her in solitary confinement. She persisted, and he initiated forced feedings. This was a brutal practice that involved strapping the victim to a chair and shoving a tube down her throat.  As time passed, the sentences increased in length, and the brutality worsened.

 Suffragette Movement and The Night of Terror

The most brutal events occurred on November 14, 1917.  Thirty-three women, who had been

Lucy Burns sits before a jail cell door possibly holding newspaper containing published account of the Night of Terror.

Lucy Burns in Occoquan prison

peacefully protesting, were arrested and brought to Occoquan.  They demanded to be treated as political prisoners.  Exasperated, the Prison Superintendent instructed his guards to teach the women a lesson.  They drug the women down a hall and threw them into dark, dirty cells. Through the night, the women were beaten and tortured.  Guards threw them against iron beds and benches until some lost consciousness.  They cuffed Lucy’s hands to the top of her cell door so that she was forced to stand through the night.  One woman, witnessing the violence, had a heart attack, but was denied medical treatment until the following morning.  By that time, she had died.

Lucy kept a diary of her experiences in the jail, and others shared their stories.  Published accounts of what became known as “The Night of Terror”

Suffragette movement gains public support as Lucy Burns and others were finally released from Occoquan. One women helps another, wrapped in a blanket, as they walk away from Occoquan prison

Prisoners released from Occoquan.

prompted public outrage.  The Prison Superintendent, under pressure released the women. Eventually, the women received pardons on all charges  With public sentiment now on their side, this night became a turning point in the campaign for the 19th amendment.

After passage of the 19th amendment, Lucy withdrew from prominence in the suffrage movement, and she performed charity work for the Catholic Church until her death in 1966.

My Personal Take Away…

The courage and determination these women determined to gainthe right to vote astounds me.  Even more, the brutality of the opposition startles me.  In the present day, I know that my right to vote is now secure, but I’m also aware that the voting rights of other US citizens is at risk.  Just as others fought for me, I feel compelled to fight for equal treatment of all citizens.  However, we live in strange times where truth and fairness are under assault.  I’m left wondering:  What am I willing to endure? and,  When the time comes, will I make the necessary sacrifices in the name of justice? 

What about the Workhouse?

The Occoquan Workhouse has been converted into the Workhouse Arts Center. It now offers over 800 arts education classes and workshops in a broad spectrum of art disciplines.  Each year the Workhouse Arts Center provides more than 100 exhibitions, 300 performances, and it hosts multiple large-scale community events for the region. The Arts Center also houses The Lucy Burns Museum.

The Workhouse Arts Center is located at:  9518 Workhouse Way, Lorton, VA 22079.  If you can’t visit the museum in person, visit the website.  Hear the words of the suffragettes read aloud by museum staff from the original diaries and writings: 

See the Women’s Work Quilt

Lucy Burns appears on Women’s Work holding a picket sign as she might have done in front of the White House.  The Women’s Work Quilt will debut as a featured work in the exhibit Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes, Women’s Rights, at the Clinton Presidential Library, in September 2021.  Look for more details on the Events page of this website.

Learn More About Lucy Burns and Women’s Work…

Lucy Burns Museum.  https://www.workhousearts.org/lucyburnsmuseum/

Nappier,  Terri   (August 17, 2020). Of Prison Cells and Suffrage. The Source: Washington Magazine. University of Washington in St. Louis.  https://source.wustl.edu/2020/08/of-prison-cells-and-suffrage/

Pruitt, Sarah, (4/17/19). The Night of Terror: When Suffragists Were Imprisoned and Tortured in 1917.  https://www.history.com/news/night-terror-brutality-suffragists-19th-amendment

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Alice Paul on Women’s Work

You can find Alice Paul (1885-1977)  on Women’s Work, standing tall as one of the three central figures on  the quilt.  They are the Visionaries, at the top of the stairs.  She holds out a glass to toast passage of the 19th Amendment. Immediately following, she began to write the Equal Rights Amendment.

Alice Paul, Susan B. Anthony, and Hillary Clinton stand together at center of quilt.

Three central figures on Women’s Work represent The Visionaries.

Suffragette from an Early Age

Alice was born on January 11, 1885 in Mount Laurel, New Jersey into an affluent Quaker family.  As Quakers, her parents believed in working to improve society on many fronts.  Alice was enlisted to the fight for women’s rights from an early age. Her mother was a suffragist, and frequently brought Alice with her to meetings and events.

Formal and Informal Education

With a strong family commitment to the education of women, Alice had excellent schooling opportunities.  She attended Swathmore College where she earned a degree in Biology in 1905.  She then earned a Master’s degree in Sociology from New York School of Philanthropy College (now Columbia University) in 1907.  Next, Alice took 3 years to travel in England and study their system of social work before returning to the US to earn a Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania in 1910.

While in England, Alice met Lucy Burns, another American. The two friends joined the women’s suffrage movement in England, a movement that was much more radical and aggressive than in the US.  Eventually, Alice and Lucy brought the militant tactics they learned in England back home to the states.  Alice learned about protests and hunger strikes, and how to use the media to generate publicity and support.

Bringing the Fight to Washington

In 1912, Alice joined the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), a group dedicated to establishing the right to vote for women in the US.  This group, however, focused on earning the right to vote in individual states.  Alice strongly disagreed with this approach, broke away, and started the National Women’s Party (NWP).  Her group focused efforts directly on Congress and demanded a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote.

Women marching in Washington, DC, to demand right to vote.

Women’s March in Washington, DC on March 3, 1913.

In 1913, Alice helped organize a march on Washington, held March 3, the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.  Nearly 8000 women marched down Pennsylvania Ave. with banners and floats demanding the right to vote.  After inaugruation, President Wilson refused to meet with Alice and members of the NWP.  Instead, he insisted that it was not yet time for a constitutional amendment.  The fight continued.

The Silent Sentinels

In  January 1917, Alice helped organize the Silent Sentinels,” a group of over 1000 women who Femal protestor stands before gate of the White House with banner that says, "Mr. President, How long must women wait for liberty"picketed in front of the White House for 18 months.  Each day, women would stand at the gates with sign that read “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” and “Kaiser Wilson”. The women endured harsh weather conditions, as well as, verbal and physical attacks from onlookers.  Rather than protect their right to free speech, police, beat and arrested the protesters on trumped up charges of obstructing traffic.  

In the face of police brutality, Alice remained fierce.  When she was sentenced to 7 months in jail, Alice organized a hunger strike.  Doctors were brought in to force feed her.  This involved strapping her to a chair, holding her head back, shoving a tube down her throat. Doctors also threatened to declare her insane and send her to an asylum.

Young woman stands holding banner that reads, "We Demand that the American Government Give Alice Paul, a political offender, the privileges Russia gave Miyukoff

Suffragette demands fair treatment for Alice Paul

Newspaper accounts of the treatment the women were enduring in prison prompted public sympathy and support for the cause.  Finally, in 1918, President Wilson publicly announced his support for the suffrage movement.  

The 19th Amendment

Passing the 19th amendment remained a slow process.  Once taken up by the Congress,  the Senate and the House of Representatives must approve the amendment, and then at least 36 states must ratify it.  This took almost 2 years. but the 19th amendment was finally adopted as part of the US Constitution on August 26, 1920. Alice Paul on Women’s Work holds up a glass to toast the passage of the amendment. It was actually a glass of grape juice, as Alice was against drinking alcohol.

Alice sits at table sewing a star to a banner for each state that ratifies the 19th amendment.

Alice and NWP members sew stars on ratification banner.

Alice Paul stands on balcony with star banner hanging down. Many women standing on ground below looking up.

The Star banner unfurled to mark 19th Amendment ratification

What about the Equal Rights Amendment…

Following the passage of the 19th Amendment, Alice immediately turned her attention to the Equal Rights Amendment. After all, with its latest amendment, the Constitution guaranteed  women the right to vote; nothing more.  The ERA guaranteed equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. It would end distinctions between men and women in cases of divorce, property ownership, working conditions, pay, and a host of other issues.  Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman introduced the ERA to Congress in December 1923. The bill languished for many years until it gained massive support in the 1960’s.  The ERA was passed by Congress and the Senate in 1972.  By 1977 only 35, of the required 38 states had ratified the amendment.  Alice Paul died in 1977, knowing the amendment, while close at hand, was not yet a reality.

My Personal Take Away

Alice Paul stands on Women’s Work as she stood her entire life, committed to equality for women, in fact, all American citizens. I’m struck by her unwavering dedication to the cause, and what she was able to accomplish as a result.  I’m in a period in my own life where I feel constantly distracted from the task at hand by frivolous videos, news reports, ads for things I don’t really need. In my studio,  I’m hanging a photo of Alice Paul holding up a glass as a reminder to focus on what is important, and to turn off the rest of the noise.

See the Women’s Work Quilt

Women’s Work will debut as a featured work in the exhibit Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes, Women’s Rights, at the Clinton Presidential Library, in September 2021.  Look for more details on the Events page of this website.

Learn More About Alice Paul

Michals, Debra.  “Alice Paul.”  National Women’s History Museum.  2015.  www.womenshistorymuseum.org/education-resources/biographies/alice-paul. 

“The Nineteenth Amendment: A Crash Course.” National Park Service website. 2020.  https://www.nps.gov/articles/2020-crash-course.htm

History.com editors (2/8/2021). “Alice Paul.” A&E Television Networks. https://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/alice-paul

Kathryn Elizabeth Colohan, Jill S. and Krista Joy Niles (2018). “ERA History” Alice Paul Institute. https://www.equalrightsamendment.org/history

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