Lucy Burns: American Catholic and Advocate

Catholic, conservative women often take their voting rights for granted. Some see it merely as a doubling of the ‘family vote.’ The idea that they have the right to vote differently from their fathers and husbands, should they so choose, is not something widely celebrated or speculated about. But for women such as Lucy Burns, it’s a different story.

Independence and Free Choice

There’s a moment in Downton Abbey where, in reference to Lady Sybil’s interest in the suffragette movement, Lady Mary defends her, “I do believe Sybil has a right to her own opinion.” To which the Dowager Countess Grantham responds, “No she doesn’t. Not until she is married! Then her husband will inform her what her opinions are!” We laugh and then we all remember the people we know who act like this in 2018. Then we stop laughing. One of the suffragettes of the 1910s who knew the true lengths that people were willing to go to silence women who spoke off script was an American Catholic named Lucy Burns.

Born 1879 in Brooklyn to a Catholic father who believed in equal education for men and women, she graduated from Vassar and went on to graduate school at Yale. From there to Oxford University, where she became a suffragette, befriended the great Alice Paul, and began her part in the historical fight for female equality. By 1913, she had taken the fight home to the United States and with Alice Paul, led the Congressional Union for Women’s Suffrage. The Union led a march of five thousand women on President Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural day. When the president-elect famously inquired, “Where are all the people?” The police replied “Watching the suffrage parade.” It was the first, great, peaceful civil rights demonstration in our nation’s history.

There were many women of remarkable courage in that movement within that unique moment in our history. Lucy Burns more than stood with them and led, her courage and the sheer, determined resilience in the face of seven arrests and multiple detainments garner her distinction. Though she suffered the most arrests of any in the American suffragette movement, she never wavered in her courage.

It is difficult for some of us to imagine now, but many felt as the then-President of the United States did, that “a woman’s place was in the home, and the type of woman who took an active part in the suffrage agitation was totally abhorrent.”  They felt that women like Lucy Burns were trouble-makers, accused them of hating men, hating authority, their country, law and order. They were even accused of discarding and destroying traditional morality. In their view, these women had to be silenced lest they spread domestic discontent and contempt for the law among the fair, gentle sex. And if they would not go home and be quiet, if they continued to make a spectacle, they would have to be made an example of, with severe punishment.

But Lucy would not be silenced. She said, “It is unthinkable that a national government which represents women should ignore the issue of the right of all women to political freedom.”

Arrested after picketing the White House, Lucy was imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse, notorious for deplorable conditions and it’s inhumane treatment of prisoners.  There in her damp cell, surrounded by rats, mold, drinking water from putrid pails and eating worms in the food, her compassion and courage lifted the spirits of her sisters. Even in that hellish place, she organized the suffragettes, she wrote, she led, she inspired, she protested. She wrote a document defining their status as political prisoners and condemning the foul state in which they were being kept and she managed to circulate it to other suffragettes and procure their signatures. When it was discovered, she was promptly hurled into solitary confinement. Upon her release from prison, Lucy continued to protest, was arrested yet again, and given the maximum sentence to be served at the Occoquan Workhouse.

Terror at Occoquan

On November 14th-15th 1917, in a moment of police brutality remembered in infamy as “The Night of Terror”, Lucy Burns, along with Dora Lewis, Dorothy Day, Julia Emory, Margaret Kessler, Phoebe Scott and so many others suffered brutal beatings and were denied medical care. Lucy was dragged, hurled at the wall, beaten, bloodied, shackled, then stripped and forced to stand all night with her hands handcuffed above her head to the cell door.

When reading the accounts of these valiant women during the Night of Terror and the weeks that followed, one is struck by the sheer force of the hatred and vengeance enacted upon the minds and bodies of these women who refused to answer interrogation or spoke up to protest and to comfort each other. One is struck by the sheer number of times the warden screamed for them to confess their criminality and how many times the guards barked at them to “shut up!” They made them watch their comrades suffer, they threatened to throw them in cells with male prisoners and let them rape them. They dragged May Nolan, a seventy-three-year-old suffragette with a lame foot. Lucy was forced to watch helplessly as Dorothy Day was brutalized and bound bent over a metal bench. Their just outrage, cries and efforts to protect their own was only taken as evidence that they were hysterical and insane. They were threatened with straight jackets and gags.

In the days that followed the Night of Terror, Lucy Burns and Dora Lewis led and spoke for their movement in prison, organizing a hunger strike as the wardens, doctors and guards refused to treat the wounds and sickness they had inflicted upon their victims. In response, the doctor and wardens isolated Lucy and Dora From the others, dragged them to an exam room and forced an “examination,” forcibly removing their clothing again. As Lucy noted in her accounts, no vitals taken with that much physical struggle could be admitted as medical evidence. The torturers knew this, but anything and everything was to be used against these women to give them an excuse to lock them away in mental institutions. Then they forced Lucy and Dora down on a bed, and with five people holding them down, stuffed feeding tubes up their nostril and force fed them.

Lucy wrote, “Food forced into an empty stomach through the nose and down the throat hits the stomach like a ball of lead.”Blood flowed from her nose and her throat throbbed. When they pulled the tube out of her nose, it was covered with blood. The intent to break their spirits and take away any sense of self-determination they had is palpable in the historical account.

The Fight for Liberty

There are several things to take comfort in the story of Lucy Burns. One is that if reasonable calls for reform inspire such disproportionate rage and revilement, and such timorous entreaties that we stop making such a big fuss, then we are in good company with our foremothers who paved the way, responding to such talk with their sweat, tears, and blood. The second thing to draw hope from is that, however the opposition to these women raising their voices raged and smote, their opponents eventually lost the fight. Because, and this is the greatest comfort that I take from this history, hatred and fear are not as powerful as an indomitable will for liberty.

Once the 19th Amendment was finally ratified, Lucy said, “I think we have done all this for women, and we sacrificed everything we possessed for them, now let them fight for it now.” In each of our lives, we each have a call to stand up for the oppressed in our own way. Following the example of Lucy Burns, let us be indefatigable in answer to that call.

Join the Conversation