“The militant wing of the Suffragists has performed a big service. But for its enterprise and daring suffrage would not have had nearly so wide a publicity during the past few years or made nearly so urgent an appeal.”
-J. D. Barry in the New York Telegram; May 17, 1918 (Adams and Keene xiv)
In 1909, a very nervous Alice Paul (pictured above) attended a protest organized by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), an English suffragist group. As she had been warned, the police arrested all the ladies involved. While she and the other activists waited in the recreation room of the local precinct, she noticed one of the other ladies was wearing an American flag label pin. Paul approached the lady and introduced herself to Lucy Burns. The two spent the rest of the day sitting atop a billiards table discussing the cause in both England and the United States. They were as different as two women could be. Burn’s brash mannerisms and red-hair must have seemed at odds with Paul’s slight build and quiet demeanor, but that afternoon was the beginning of a close partnership and friendship (Lunardini 16-7).
After working with British suffragettes, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns returned to the United States with one goal: a federal amendment for American women. They joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) as leaders of a sub-committee with little power and virtually no budget. Paul, Burns and other ladies in Washington D.C. transformed this into an active political force. Their goal for a federal amendment didn’t fit with the NAWSA plan to gain the vote state-by-state, so in 1914, the group separated from its parent organization (Martinez).
In 1916, they formed the National Woman’s Party. The NWP picketed before the White House even after the U.S. entered World War I, increasing their lack of popularity with the general public. Picketers were harassed, then arrested, convicted and imprisoned for bogus crimes. In the workhouse, the NWP members, including Alice Paul, went on hunger strike. Authorities responded with beatings and force-feeding (Adams and Keene xv). The ladies were eventually pardoned by President Wilson, and on August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, giving American women the right to vote (Cullen-DuPont).
Alice Paul dedicated her life to the Women’s Movement, but much of her work, even in the pre-Nineteenth Amendment years, was done with a pen. Lucy Burns retired from political activism after the ratification, but this may have been because she was even more “hands-on” than her friend. She participated in more militant activities in England, which led to her incarceration several times and won her a medal of valor from the Women’s Social and Political Union. In the American fight, Lucy traveled the nation, often facing angry crowds, enduring physical and verbal abuse, and suffering numerous incarcerations. The final push towards a Congressional vote on the federal amendment was the hardest. “She was arrested several times in 1917 for picketing the White House with other National Woman’s Party members; in prison she claimed political prisoner status and went on a 19-day hunger strike, which ended only when she was force fed”(Cullen-DuPont and Frost-Knappman).
If you would like to see Hollywood’s version of Burns and Paul’s story, watch Iron-Jawed Angels. You may not want to eat lunch first.
-Michelle Abbott, Associate Professor of English, GHC
Adams, Katherine H. and Michael L. Keene. Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign. University of Illinois Press, 2008. EBSCOhost,
Cullen-DuPont, Kathryn. “Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” Encyclopedia of Women’s History in America, Second Edition, Facts On File, 2000. American History, online.infobase.com/HRC/Search/Details/163311?q=federal amendment for women.
Cullen-DuPont, Kathryn, and Elizabeth Frost-Knappman. “Burns, Lucy.” Women’s Suffrage in America, Updated Edition, Facts On File, 2005. American History, online.infobase.com/HRC/Search/Details/165516?q=lucy burns.
Lunardini, Christine. Alice Paul : Equality for Women. Westview Press, 2012. Lives of American Women. EBSCOhost, proxygsu-flo1.galileo.usg.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=563429&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Martinez, Donna. “Paul, Alice.” American Women Leaders and Activists, Second Edition, 2016. American History, online.infobase.com/HRC/Search/Details/164142?q=alice paul.