Lucy Burns, A Look at a Catholic American Suffragette by Michele Stopera Freyhauf

As we approach the election period infused with controversy, saturated by television commercials, as well as endless advertisements on the radio, Internet, and yes, even Facebook, we must remember the sacrifices made by our foremothers during the suffrage movement, which gave women the right to vote.  While all elections are important, this one has targeted issues involving women in a way that could negatively impact our rights – to the point of rewinding the clock on progress made in women’s equality during the last 40+ years.  This election needs the voice of all informed voters.  However,  it is imperative for all women to make their voices heard this year by casting a vote.  To turn a blind eye to these issues diminishes the sacrifices our foremothers made for us. To not cast a vote takes away your voice, makes you a silent bystander – something that was tried by the government and patriarchal system during the suffrage movement.

To illustrate this, I would like to highlight Lucy Burns and the Night of Terror endured at the Occoquan Workhouse by her and many of her friends.   Of all Suffragettes, Lucy Burns spent more time in jail then any other protesters.  Born 1879 in Brooklyn, Lucy was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition by a father who believed that his sons and daughters should be educated equally.  Burns gradated from Vassar College in 1902, then attended Yale Graduate School studying linguistics.  She eventually went to Oxford University in England to resume her studies.  It was at Oxford that she became involved with activism and the suffrage movement.

Returning to the United States with her friend, Alice Paul in 1912, they began the battle for the right to vote on behalf of women.  In 1913, Burns and Paul formed the Congressional Union for Women’s Suffrage, which organized a 5,000-woman march on Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural day.  The formation of the National Women’s party occurred in 1916, after Burns and Stone were ejected from the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) due to differences in tactics and approaches to making demands.

During Wilson’s presidency, Burns and the National Women’s party became tired of Wilson’s inaction on the issue of women’s right to vote.  Burns and a dozen other women picketed outside the White House beginning January 1917.  They did this six days a week and eight hours a day.  For this action, male and female onlookers, the press, and the White House attacked Burns and the other women.  In fact, Wilson, during World War I, used these protests as an illustration of unpatriotic behavior and shut down their campaign.

Burns stood at the picket line in July 1917, holding a banner that read  “Russian women had more freedom-they could vote-than American women.”  Burns was arrested with five other women, which included Dora Lewis. Burns would be arrested a total of seven times and detained much more than that over the course of her protests and activism.

One story that really stood out was the story of her lock up in the Occoquan Workhouse for 19 days.  Occoquan is known for its deplorable treatment and heinous conditions which included an infestation of small animals and mold.  Cells were dark and damp and the food was infested with meal worms. Women were forced to drink water from open, dirty pails.

It was during this stay that Burns organized and circulated a document defining the status of political prisoners including the treatment and conditions.  She was able to garner signatures of many incarcerated Suffragists, until she was caught.  This act caused her to be placed in solitary confinement.

During the “Night of Terror,” November 15, 1917, Burns  was beaten and bloodied, gasping for air, and handcuffed with her hands above her head to her cell door.  There she forced to stand in the same position for the entire evening.  At some point, she was stripped of her clothing, given only a blanket, and remained shackled in that same position in her cell.  This led to a hunger strike that lasted three days. The Warden demanded that Burns to be force-fed.  In Gender Identities in American Catholicism, a narrative by Burns describes how five people held down and force-fed her by shoving a feeding tube down her nostril:

 Wednesday 12M. Yesterday afternoon at about four or five, Mrs. Lewis and I were asked to go to the operating room. Went there and found our clothes. Told we were to go to Washington. No reason as usual. When we were dressed Dr. Gannon appeared, said he wished to examine us. Both refused. Were dragged through the halls by force, our clothing partly removed by force, and we were examined, heart tested, blood pressure and pulse taken.  Of course such data was of no value after such a struggle.  Dr. Cannon told me that I must be fed. Was stretched on a bed, two doctors, matron, four colored prisoners present, Whittaker in hall.  I was held down by five people at the legs, arms, and head. I refused to open my mouth, Gannon pushed the tube up my left nostril. I turned and twisted my head all I could, but he managed to push it up.  It hurts nose and throat very much and makes nose bleed freely. Tube drawn out covered with blood. Operation leaves one very sick. Food dumped directly into stomach feels like a ball of lead.  Left nostril, throat, and muscles of neck very sore all night. After this I was brought into the hospital in ambulance. Mrs. Lewis and I placed in the same room.  Slept hardly at all.  This morning Dr. Ladd appeared with his tube. Mrs. Lewis and I said we would not be forcibly fed. Said he would call in men guards and force us to submit. Went away and we were not fed at all this morning. We hear them outside now cracking eggs (213-214).

Lewis’ Night of Terror also saw extreme brutality.   After her hunger strike, she was hurled into her cell, knocked unconscious, and feared dead. Lewis was held down as well  and force-fed in the same way Burns was – through her nose.

Alice Cosu was also forcefully thrown in her cell and suffered a heart attack and despite pleas for medical attention, was ignored.

Alice Paul, another leader imprisoned, was force-fed as well, but liquid was poured down her throat through a tube in such quantities that made her vomit.  This went on for weeks.

May Nolan, a seventy-three year old woman with a lame leg, was dragged and roughed up by guards.

Dorothy Day had ber arm twisted behind her back and was slammed down with force over the back of an iron bench.

Protesting and asking for the right to vote, as a woman, resulted in beatings, toture – even to the point of barely being alive, occured with the warden’s full blessing.  HBO documented Lucy Burn’s story and the Night of Terror in the movie Iron Jawed Angels.  In this movie, an intriguing statement is made :

“Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.”

These women were indeed courageous, and  I would like you, the reader, to remember their sacrifice and honor them by  going to the polls and exercising your right a vote.

Biographical information obtained from the Lucy Burns Institute, Turning Point Suffragist Memorial, Snopes (, Gendered Identities in American Catholicism, and Iron Jawed Angels (Synopsis).  Photographs taken from Wikipedia.

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.   She has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll University in Theology and Religious Studies, performed post-graduate work in History focusing on Gender, Religion, and Sexuality at the University of Akron, and is an Adjunct Instructor in the Religious Studies Department at Ursuline College.  Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at  Michele can be followed on twitter at @MSFreyhauf.

Author: Michele Stopera Freyhauf

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a Member of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University as well as an Instructor at John Carroll University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Michele has an M. A. in Theology and Religious Studies from John Carroll University, and did post-graduate work at the University of Akron in the area of History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She is also a Member-at-Large on the Student Advisory Board for the Society of Biblical Literature and the student representative on the Board for Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society (EGLBS). Michele is a feminist scholar, activist, and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia” and lectured during the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations (2013). Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf and @biblicalfem. Her website can be accessed here and is visible on other social media sites like LinkedIn and Google+.

7 thoughts on “Lucy Burns, A Look at a Catholic American Suffragette by Michele Stopera Freyhauf”

  1. After reading Dorothy Day’s memoir, THE LONG LONELINESS, I drove down to the Lorton Reformatory and parked my car outside its walls. I walked down Silverbrook Road and found the bed of the RF&P railroad branch on which the activists had ridden the train taking them to the workhouse. That was many years ago. Only a few traces of the branch remain. The workhouse in which the activists had been incarcerated was torn down, but across the street from its site, the former prison buildings have been converted into an arts center,


  2. Echoing Carol Christ, I thank you from my heart for this piece. It’s easy for us, as we’re embroiled in fighting for ourselves here and now, to forget the women who came before and opened the doors for us.


  3. It was my privilege to know and work with one of these great women late in her life when I was myself very young. It is ironic and a little disturbing to read Dorothy Day’s name associated with a plea to go to the polls! Dorothy Day, for one, will not be honored by casting a vote for either of the men on the ballot who want to be president and to steal and murder in our names.

    Picketing the White House with the suffragists and going to jail with them was a formative experience for Dorothy, but while she had great respect for the courage of these women, she had no sympathy for their cause- indeed, Dorothy never voted nor did she tire of discouraging others from going to the polls.

    Dorothy went to Washington and got arrested, she admitted, mostly because she was unemployed at the time and her good friend Peggy Baird was going. It was not for the right to vote that Peggy marched, either, but rather it was in solidarity with these women standing up to state oppression. “I would not use the vote if I had it,” she told Dorothy, “but that does not keep me from joining them when they are making such a good fight!”

    Dorothy’s antipathy toward suffrage was rooted in her conviction that women would be as likely to vote for war as men, an opinion that put her at odds with the liberal orthodoxy of the time which held certain that giving the vote to women would bring an end to militarism. The anarchist Emma Goldman likewise caused some consternation within the women’s movement of the time by calling the cause of woman’s suffrage a modern fetish (“Woe to the heretic who dare question that divinity!”) and a tragic distraction from the vital work of liberation. Few women have done more in the struggle for social, economic or political equality than Emma Goldman and Dorothy Day. Their opposition to the enfranchisement of women was not based on fundamentalist ideology, but on a conviction, in Goldman’s words, that “all existing systems of political power are absurd, and are completely inadequate to meet the pressing issues of life” and any human progress that had been gained up to her time had been “through a constant fight, a ceaseless struggle for self-assertion, and not through suffrage. There is no reason whatever to assume that woman, in her climb to emancipation, has been, or will be, helped by the ballot.”


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