Lucy Burns will celebrate her birthday on July 28. She’s turning 135, still taking a stand for women’s rights and doing what needs to be done to assure that the electorate is informed and engaged in the democratic process.
Lucy Burns, born July 28, 1879 in Brooklyn, was an unflappable suffragette, co-founder (with Alice Paul) of the National Women’s Party. Well educated and financed by her wealthy father, Lucy first encountered activism – and Alice Paul – while a student in Britain. She soon gave up her studies, went to work for the Women’s Social and Political Party, and dove deep into the cause of women in the UK.
Burns and Paul returned to the US where they worked for some time with the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In time, Paul and Burns differed with the tactics of NAWSA and went on to establish what became the National Women’s Party
The story of Burns is one of activism, association with powerful women of the day (e.g. Dorothy Day) and a fade from center stage as she left Paul to take the lead and returned to take on family responsibilities until her quiet death in 1966.
Still, it was to the story of Lucy Burns that Leslie Graves returned in 2006 when she envisioned the potential of the Lucy Burns Institute, a powerful force that continues to grow and thrive from its home base in Madison, Wisconsin. Graves’ inspiration came not from Burns’ fight for women’s rights but from her own outrage at the mindless procedures that blocked her Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
Assured that her frustration was widely shared by countless FOIA requesters Graves took action. In December 2006 the Lucy Burns Institute was incorporated as a nonprofit in Madison, Wisconsin. The following year, the Lucy Burns Institute introduced WikiFOIA, a state government-focused resource designed “to harness local knowledge in an effort to empower citizens seeking information from government entities.”
For Graves, Burns was a role model:
In her work to advocate the cause of ‘votes for women” [Burns] organized. lobbied, wrote, edited, traveled, marched, spoke, rallied and picketed…..She knew that being able to participate in a democracy by voting was an essential way to express our human dignity. For this goal, she was willing to fight and suffer. In a small way, we like to think our work carries on the spirit of Lucy Burns.
In modern America, the barriers to full participation in our democracy aren’t as concrete as the ability to cast a vote. What can prevent people from fully engaging in today’s political process is when it is difficult to find accurate, comprehensive information about election laws, politicians, candidates and elections. LBI’s goal is to help solve that problem for all three branches of government, at all three levels of government.”
Today the Lucy Burns Institute is a thriving resource, still shaped on the vision of Lucy Burns, modernized by Leslie Graves, the LBI board and staff – and user feedback. The principles of LBI are simple, straightforward and inviolable:
- The truth is not partisan.
- People seek truth and use it in positive, powerful, and unforeseen ways.
- Informed voters are the foundation of democracy. Positive change starts with them.
- Democratic self-governance is not the work of a day; it requires optimism, persistence, and the long view.
- The online environment is an extraordinary opportunity to reach voters with comprehensive facts, information, and content.
Among recent projects that expand the outreach and information access of LBI:
- Ballotpedia is an online wiki with information about elections, Congress, state executive officials, state legislatures, recall elections and ballot measures.
- Judgepedia is another wiki about America’s courts and judges.
- Policypedia is an online guide to public policy information including energy policy, education policy, public pension policy, state budgets and electoral reform
Lucy Burns, unstoppable activist, lives on in the spirit of the Institute that bears her name. Equipped with 21st Century tools LBI expands the very definition of access to information by and about the government – all three branches, all three levels.
Those who share that vision and sense of purpose might celebrate the 135th birthday of the indefatigable Lucy Burns by spending quality time exploring the robust, state-of-the-art, unique resources of the Lucy Burns Institute that keeps her story alive and today’s voters informed.
Lucy Burns Institute
301 South Bedford Street, Suite 6
Madison, WI 53703