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Alumni Spotlight: Lucy Burns, Class of 1899

Lucy Burns, Class of 1899, was a prominent figure in the American movement for women’s suffrage, using her fearlessness and persistence to sway minds. She grew up in a large Irish family in Brooklyn, and began her education at Packer. A gifted student, she went on to Columbia, Vassar, Yale, and Oxford, where she met British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst. Inspired by Pankhurst’s enthusiasm and militant methods, Burns left school and fought for women’s rights in Britain from 1910 to 1912.

While being arrested for demonstrating, she encountered fellow American Alice Paul. Burns and Paul became lifelong friends and colleagues in the fight for women’s suffrage. Upon returning to the US, they joined the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), organizing its more radical protests, including a 5,000-woman march in Washington, DC, on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.

In 1916, the duo established the National Women’s Party, a political party committed to direct action to achieve women’s suffrage. Burns organized daily picketing of the White House, angering President Wilson.

Upon her third arrest in 1917, she was convicted and given the maximum sentence. While she was imprisoned in the Occuquan Workhouse, guards brutally beat and injured Burns and dozens of other suffragists. Burns responded by leading a hunger strike. Wanting to diffuse her power, authorities transferred her to a different prison and force fed her painfully through a tube.

The brutality of the “Night of Terror” at Occuquan began to turn public opinion in the suffragists’ favor. After the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Burns returned to Brooklyn and spent her remaining days out of the public eye until her death in 1966.

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