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Columbia University’s Jedediah Britton-Purdywrote recently about politics in America. “The (political) center has an advantage: we live in the world it has built.” That is, of course, unless we change it. That’s underway today, and it has happened throughout America’s history—certainly when women across the nation fought to secure the right to vote.

Lucy Burns

Fought” is the right word, too. For seven decades—from the late 1840s to 1920—multiple generations of activist women fought political intransigence persistently and valiantly. They never gave up despite being thwarted repeatedly. The fight ended on August 26, 1920 when the 19th Amendment was adopted in the U.S. Constitution. Celebrated today asWomen’s Equality Day, the Amendment prohibited the states and the federal government from denying the right to vote based on gender.

And as we celebrate that epochal change in the exercise of American democracy, we also need to acknowledge the women who made it possible. One of those women, Lucy Burns, isn’t a household name, but the record shows clearly that she was in the vanguard of change. In the end, Burns and her colleagues sealed the deal.

July 28 is Lucy Burns’ 141st birthday. A month later, we’ll celebrate the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment. So it’s a perfect time—especially in today’s ‘woke’ society—to recall what Burns and others did, how they did it, and why they became confrontational activists. Lessons from their work educate us about what it takes to make major social change a reality.

The best way to start is by describing the political context of the time. In the mid-19th Century, most of America didn’t support women voting, and many women didn’t want to exercise that right, either. Securing the vote would require climbing a mountain.

Early on, there wasn’t a viable political path via a Federal amendment, so the alternative pathway was going state-by-state. The states-rights approach also gave national-level politicians political cover. Rather than addressing it as a presidential and Congressional matter, Washington tossed a hot potato to state legislators across the country.

For women activists, going state-by-state was a tedious chore. During an era when traveling was anything but easy, scores of women travelled to assist local activists in state-level efforts. Most of the early state targets were out West, while many of the leading activists lived ‘Back East’ (as did Burns, a New Yorker) and in the Midwest. Travelers would be gone from home for weeks at a time.

Progress was ploddingly slow. Wyoming signed on as a territory in 1869, ten years before Burns was born. But by century’s end, when Burns was entering her 20s, women could cast all-elections ballots in only four states: Wyoming (a state by then), Colorado, Utah, and Idaho. By the late 1910s—when Burns was vested in the vanguard of the suffrage movement—15 states had accorded women the full right to vote, and women could vote in presidential elections (only) in 12 other states. Only two of the full-voting states were located east of the Mississippi River (New York and Michigan), and none were in the South. Yes, the15th Amendment had given Black men the right to vote, but Southern state and local power brokers worked hard to disable that right, and they were hell bent to keep Black women from voting.

There were ‘edgy’ activists, such as the imitable Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who believed that those in power wouldn’t budge unless they were forced to change. Confronting the power structure was the approach of choice.

The women faced other challenges, too—internal to the movement. When social change takes such a long time and requires baton-passing from activist to activist, it’s difficult to sustain energy, especially when there’s limited success to show for efforts. The suffrage movement also had to contend with what happens to all movements—differences of opinion emerge among the leadership about how to proceed. Some suffrage leaders preferred working with the power structure for change.Carrie Chapman Catt and theNational Women’s Suffrage Association were examples. And there were ‘edgy’ activists, such as the imitableAlice Paul and Lucy Burns, who believed that those in power wouldn’t budge unless they were forced to change. Confronting the power structure was the approach of choice.

Paul and Burns had mentors in that regard. They were British suffragettes, the Pankhurst’s, a family that included motherEmmeline, and daughtersChristabel andSylvia. The Pankhurst family was affiliated with theWomen’s Political and Social Union (WPSU), an organization that used a variety of confrontational approaches to secure public attention in Britain for the cause.

Paul and Burns traveled independently to Britain to learn from the Pankhurst’s, and the two met in prison following separate arrests for public protesting. From that point on, it’s impossible to talk about Alice Paul without including Lucy Burns, and one can’t write about Lucy Burns without linking her work to Alice Paul. And neither was shy about naming the challenge. “It is unthinkable that a national government which represents women should ignore the issue of the right of all women to political freedom,”Burns wrote.

In an approach that was considered radical for the times (and in some circles still is) Paul and Burns rebuffed mainstream strategies in favor of forcing the issue—especially with President Woodrow Wilson, who became a target. Wilson didn’t believe women’s suffrage was a priority matter, and he preferred that it be dealt with by the states. 

Paul and Burns knew that the best way to force Wilson’s hand was by swaying public opinion in their favor. They applied organizing strategies/tactics learned from the Pankhurst’s, and they founded an organization,The National Women’s Party, which was similar in theme and style to Britain’s WPSU. The year was 1916.

One of the Party’s first activities was picketing the White House, which was unheard of at the time. Non-violent, but very public, protests made it possible for Paul, Burns, and others to communicate directly with the public and to call out Wilson’s inaction. Burns was well known for authoring strident messages for display by the picketers, including referring to Wilson as ‘Kaiser Wilson.”

The protesters—around 2000 strong—became known asThe Silent Sentinels.Hecklers and police harassed them, but they received extensive press coverage in exchange. Over time, pressure grew to charge the women with ‘offenses,’ and many protesters were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to jail. Several, including Paul and Burns, received unconscionably long sentences.

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Sentencing provided an organizing opportunity to gain even further public attention. The women went on a hunger strike. Newspapers showed renderings of protesters being force-fed with hoses inserted into the mouth and nose. In the end, Burns was arrested not once, but three times. During one stint, she and others endured what the press dubbed, ‘The Night of Terror.’ Thirty-three imprisoned women were mistreated physically, including Burns (considered a ring leader), who was handcuffed above her head and left in that position until morning.

Public attention and sympathy for what the women had endured finally won out; Wilson said that he would support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But the fight was hardly over. The final phases were just beginning. While it didn’t take long for the Amendment to pass the U.S. House, it failed in the Senate. Soon thereafter, Wilson intervened and urged both assemblies to pass the Amendment. The second time was a charm: the Senate approved it by a 2-to-1 margin.

Now the fight would end just as it had started—on the road. To become law, the Amendment had to be approved legislatively by a minimum of 36 states. Thejourney began June 10-16, 1919 as six states voted yes—Wisconsin (the first), Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Kansas, and New York. By year’s end, 22 states had signed on, and the number grew to 35 by March 1920. Only one more state was need to hit the magic number, 36.

Then, progress hit the wall: two states (Mississippi and Delaware) voted no. Attention then turned to Tennessee and an unwelcoming part of the country—the South. As pro- and anti-suffrage groups gathered in Knoxville to lobby state legislators, the pro-forces had hope. Tennessee wasthe only state in the Deep Souththat had accorded women the right to vote in presidential elections.

After a raucous week of political back-and-forth, the resolution passed easily in the TN Senate, but just about everybody expected it to lose in the House. A mother’s urging kept that from happening. Previously positioned anti-voterRep. Harry T. Burn switched his vote to ‘yes’ after he read a letter written to him by his mother. “Don’t forget to be a good boy,”she wrote. When another previously anti-vote representative, Seth Walker, followed suit, those voting switches put ‘yes’ ballots in the majority.

The day was August 24, 1920. Two days later, the U.S. Secretary of State announced that the 19th Amendment had become the law of the land.

Lucy Burns was very much a part of this story—and such a grand story for equality and democracy it was. But activists know a personal price is involved. Burns was exhausted. In the most frequently quoted statement of her life,she exclaimed: "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." True to her word, Burns retired from active public life. 

Since then, the name Lucy Burns ebbs and flows in the chronicles of American history. Generally, Burns doesn’t get the attention ascribed to Alice Paul, who was the public face of what some call ‘the militant arm’ of the women’s activist movement. An outstanding strategist with tactics to match, Dr. Paul (Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania) was also a master at dealing with the press—always available ‘for a headline or a good quote or two.” Burns, it seems, was very much to Alice Paul whatBayard Rustin was to Martin Luther King Jr.—philosophically compatible, an intellectual match (Columbia, Yale, Vassar, and Oxford), a trusted confidant, and an indispensable collaborator who got things done well, efficiently, and with a flourish.

Over the years, Burns has gotten her just due.The Lucy Burns Institute is an example. Founded in 2006 in the belief that “informed voters are the foundation of democracy, and positive change starts with them,” the Institute’s central offering is something I rely on regularly.Ballotpedia is an online resource about ballot issues, elections, and other public affairs matters.

While I admire Lucy Burns and her history-changing work, I also believe there is more to this story—beyond acknowledging her, the person. ‘Lucy Burns’ is a metaphor for persistent activism—of citizens who commit themselves to the pursuit of liberty, justice, and equality, and stick with it, through ups and downs, over an extended period of time. America has always been blessed with people like that, and the names of people unfamiliar to us today will be the focus of public adulation years (decades) from now.

As for activists like Lucy Burns and Alice Paul, they were able to do what eludes so many others. Britton-Purdynames it: “There is a tremendous gap between our capacity to articulate a case for a different world and the ability to make it matter to the unpersuaded.”


I know no better, or other, way to say it: Lucy Burns helped change the course of democracy in America. Pass it on. 

Frank Fear

I dedicate this offering to my spouse, Dr. Kathleen Lucille Burns Fear. A feminist, just like her namesake, Kathy has dedicated her life to equality and the advancement of women.

You can listen to this article on Anchor, Apple and other podcast platforms. Tune toUnder the Radar with Host Frank Fear.