The Forgotten History of Women’s Suffrage in the United States
Of the thousands of women who turned out for the Women’s March in Washington in January 2017, very few were probably aware of the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Procession. Much of the history of suffrage has been forgotten, the good and bad.
The centenary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which took place on August 18, has brought to light many stories of the struggle for the women’s vote, perhaps no more unsettling object lesson than the procession of 1913.
Held on the eve of the swearing-in of newly elected Democrat Woodrow Wilson for his first term, more than eight thousand women marched, “in a spirit of protest against the current political organization of society, from which women are excluded”, according to the official program of the day. In other words, the women demanded the vote.
The front of this same program featured a young white woman on a white horse leading the procession, her hair styled into a sleek bob in the flapper fashion of Joan of Arc Meets “New Woman.” There was truly such a woman at the head of the 1913 march: Inez Milholland, who, like Joan of Arc herself, would literally die for the cause. There was so much courage in the struggle for women’s suffrage. There was also racism. When Alice Paul, organizer of the march and suffrage strategist, told black suffragists to march behind their backs that day, journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells refused.
The following is an excerpt from my book, She votes: how American women got the vote and what happened next.
The dawn of March 3, 1913 was clear and cold, with no risk of rain or snow. The day before the inauguration of the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, was a great day for a suffrage parade.
Ida B. Wells could have sat on her boarding bed that morning, putting on a pair of stockings first, then another. Behind her, the blanket had perhaps extended the dark forms of her heaviest skirt and coat, a thick fur muff beside them. Bright next to these is a curved white hat covered in stars, with a matching scarf and pennant. The stars signified full suffrage states. The other side of the scarf is declared in black bold type: Illinois. Its original condition. Wells undoubtedly assumed she would be alone in a sea of white women, but she wasn’t afraid to stand out. His credo, always: “It is better to die fighting injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”
Deeds Not Words was to be our permanent motto. – Emmeline Pankhurst
The instigator of the parade, Alice Paul, made it clear that Wells and the other black women were to stay home. Their presence would only complicate matters. The suffrage message must be precise and clear. Which to Paul and too many others meant white.
As a defiant Wells dressed, Paul was probably already leaning against the cold on Pennsylvania Avenue, the wide brim of his hat tipped back to better assess the long straight shot that went from where his button-down boots met the sidewalk to the front door. of the White House. Like a general pacing the battlefield, Paul was brooding, thoughtful, with a somber face that matched the gravity of his goal.
I imagine him tracing every detail of his mind, pacing slowly, with barely contained energy, like a big cat assessing its prey.
In just eight hours, more than 8,000 women would march down Pennsylvania Avenue in orchestrated waves. Costumed, carrying signs, totally organized from tip to toe, they spread their common message: “Votes for women”. There would be floats, bands, streamers, dances, theatrical performances, horses and more. The setup was spectacular. At a cost of almost $ 15,000 (over $ 382,000 in today’s dollars), raised through donations directed by Paul, it was better. Paul breathed in the fresh morning air with satisfaction and allowed himself a small smile.
Paul was tired of talking about women’s suffrage. After sixty-five years of meetings, what did the suffragists have to show? Schisms and quarrels. Reunification and stagnation. And if the “founding mothers” had finally united their rival organizations in 1890, what had really changed? Yes, eleven states had full suffrage, but not enough. Women had their say by nominating only eighty-four voters of the 483 members of the electoral college. Whispers muffled by a roar. Paul is done with state-by-state ratification; it was time for a constitutional amendment or nothing. This parade was his shot through the arch. Americans came for what was theirs.
Like many Revolutionary Americans before her, Alice Paul was a Quaker, descendant of William Penn, in Pennsylvania. So she was in a way a born iconoclast, brought up like all Quakers with the ideal of gender equality. She had attended suffrage meetings with her mother since shortly after her birth in 1885. Equality for women has always been as obvious to her as air and water. A fact of nature.
But Paul didn’t radicalize until after graduating from Swarthmore, earning his masters at Penn, and moving to England to study economics. In England, she met militant suffragette – aka suffragette – a variety that had not yet reached American shores. “Deeds not words” was the motto of the British version of the movement, embodied by its leader, Emmeline Pankhurst. Alice Paul would participate in the activism of Pankhurst, then bring him home.
Let’s dive into suffragist against. suffragist waters. We may actually be late, but historically this is where the terms take on meaning. You may be familiar with “suffragette” from Mary Poppins’ song “Sister Suffragette” or “Suffragette City” from rock god David Bowie, whose name evokes a radical movement in British history. In 1906, English women fighting for suffrage had been mockingly mentioned in the Daily mail as “suffragettes”. A sin, Ho ho, simmering over there, little ladies, you weaker sex, you mini-everything. What Pankhurst, head of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and other activists said to: Ha ha, why yes, we prance, we chop suffragettes in skirts as they planted bombs on Saint Paul’s Cathedral (and elsewhere) and threw themselves under the hooves of the king’s horse. They took the word back.
Because of this association with radicalism, American women tended to prefer suffragist rather than suffragist. Counterintuitively, suffragist is the more radical term. Much like Riot Grrrl taking power in language that sought to shame.
For his part, Paul was up for anything. Suffragist, suffragist, whatever. Actions and not words would also be his motto. Imprisoned seven times for her suffrage activity in Britain – a country where she was not even a citizen (that was the principle of the thing) – she went on a hunger strike and suffered the torture of being force-fed British women. In America, she would risk more. Prison, force-feeding, attempted institutionalization for insanity, gunfire, public ridicule and contempt. But if she was anything, Paul was a fearless public relations genius, going to anything to give newspapers something worth writing.
I imagine Ida B. Wells – mostly uninvited from the suffrage parade but going anyway – wished Paul had gone to hell. Not that this was a contest, but as an internationally renowned investigative journalist and anti-lynching activist with a bull’s eye on her back, Wells was arguably the most fearless woman.
Born a slave in Mississippi in 1862, just six months before the Emancipation Proclamation, Wells came of age in the heady years after the Civil War, nourished by the hopeful air of black freedom, which included the fact to see his father and other black men vote. But such freedom did not last. The end of the reconstruction quickly brought racist laws aimed at bringing blacks under white control.
At 16, Wells lost both parents and younger brother to yellow fever. She became a teacher and raised her seven younger siblings on her own. Although the head of a large household, she earned less than half of what white teachers did. In search of better pay, Wells moved to Memphis, where she taught during the school year and attended college during the summer. A born writer, Wells never hesitated to express himself. Here she is, twenty-four years old: “I will not begin this late day doing what my soul loathes; sweet men, weak deceptive creatures, with the flattery of keeping them as escorts.
In 1889 Wells became co-owner and editor of the Free voice and lighthouse newspaper, where she protested against segregation. She highlighted glaring examples such as the school she taught, for which she was dismissed by the Memphis Board of Education. But it was in the murder of his friend Thomas Moss, owner of a popular local grocery store, that Wells found his unwanted appeal. Moss was dragged out of a Memphis jail cell – where he was being held for defending his business against white thugs – and summarily shot along with two others. Outraged, Wells urged Memphis’ black community in the press: “So there is only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a city that will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but pull us out and murder us in cold blood when we are accused by white people.
An angry mob destroyed the offices of the Free voice and lighthouse and threatened to kill his publisher. Wells bought a gun and moved to Chicago. There she married, had four children, and led an international campaign to confront whites with the horror of lynching. “It is not a pleasure that I have dipped my hands in the corruption exposed here”, she wrote in Southern horrors, a bestseller, but “Someone’s got to show that the African American race is more sinful than sinful, and it seems to be incumbent upon me to do so.” She was thirty years old.
Frederick Douglass wrote to Wells in 1895. “I have spoken, but my word is weak in comparison,” he said, adding, “Good woman! Nearly twenty years later, Wells was still willing to risk anything for justice.
By nine in the morning, crowds were already lining the suffrage parade route, although the official start time was not six. At 3 p.m. the crowd was estimated at 500,000, many in Washington for the inauguration of newly elected President Woodrow Wilson the next day. Some saw it as a fun aperitif of the main event the next day. Some came for the spectacle of seeing women ridiculing themselves in public. Some have come to be inspired and to encourage hardworking women from across the country. Many came to create trouble.
As promised by the official program, a woman on horseback led the parade. Renowned labor lawyer Inez Milholland – famous for her beauty – sat in white on a white horse, a gold crown showcasing dark curls that spread across her shoulders and down her back. She climbed in front of a banner proclaiming “Onward out of the darkness, forward into the light.”
the New York Times describes the effect as “one of the most beautiful shows ever staged in this country”. Behind Milholland was a horse-drawn chariot bearing the “Great Banner of Demand” in dark caps on a white background: WE CALL FOR AN AMENDMENT TO THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES TO FRANCHISE THE WOMEN OF THIS COUNTRY.
In other words, We look good; we are not playing well.
As a result of the Great Demand, seven separate sections of protesters, including floats for each country in the world that already had national women’s suffrage: Australia, Finland, New Zealand and Norway. Behind them were women from countries where, like the United States, women had partial voting rights. After them, the women paraded by profession with matching outfits, not always easy to find. Doctors and nurses, yes. Writers have used ink on their clothes. Sculptor Adelaide Johnson, who would create the Suffrage Portrait Monument from eight tons of Carrara marble (unveiled in 1921), paraded with the artists. Many women college graduates marched with their alma maters, such as Vassar, Smith, Wellesley and Bryn Mawr. Each of the forty-eight states also had its own parade delegation (such as an Olympic Games opening ceremony by suffrage); Jeannette Rankin was among those marching to Montana, and in just three years she would be back in D.C. as the first female congressman. There were women dressed as Lady Liberty, in Columbia, as Greek girls. Paul asked the marchers to wear the colors of the British suffragettes, green, white and purple – their first letters meaning Give Women the Vote. But more demonstrators, unwilling to ally themselves with such a militant group, wore white and gold, the colors of international suffrage. There were four mounted brigades, nine marching bands, chariots, many chariots and more. in the Washington post The succinct caption that day, “The floats, the bands, the skirted Calvary and the beauties participate.”
Not everyone was impressed with the extravagance. “The suffrage parade was too funny,” wrote Eleanor Roosevelt, who watched from the backstage. She was particularly amused by the “beautiful fat ladies with bare legs and feet posed in paintings on the steps of the Treasury!” These fat ladies were freezing while Eleanor laughed.
The other spectators weren’t laughing. From the start, the men lining the road kicked, punched and spat at the women, blocking their path and almost stopping any forward progress. Ambulances came and went throughout the day, and more than a hundred people gathered at the local hospital. It was so controversial that according to the Washington post, “The doctor and the driver literally had to fight to help the injured.”
The police, all men, did not come to the aid of the marchers. Above all, they looked in amazement at the women who were spat, beaten and groped, their costumes and banners torn, burning cigarettes thrown at them. The children of the march cried, as did some of the women. A police officer reportedly told the assaulted women, “There would be nothing like this if you all stayed at home.” To their credit, a Boy Scout troop helped hold back the crowd using walking sticks, and men from Maryland Agriculture College used their bodies to form a human chain between the protesters and the crowd. A regiment of National Guard soldiers – present for the opening the next day – intervened to clear an intersection. Eventually, the order was somewhat won over by Army cavalry, staged in nearby Fort Myer at Paul’s request. The cavalry forcibly opened a way for thousands of determined women to fight. The violence would lead to a Senate investigation into the guilt of the police in failing to control the crowd and even pushing for aggression against protesters.
No one was more at risk than the Black Walkers, who were separated in the back by design.
This, I am sorry to point out, must be placed squarely at the feet of Alice Paul. Well aware that Washington, D.C., is essentially a southern city, Paul also knew how much a constitutional amendment depended on southern votes. So when women from Howard University, a historically black university, asked Paul to walk alongside their college-educated peers, Paul objected.
For the twenty-two women of Delta Theta Sigma, the first black sorority in the American Greek system and founded in Howard less than two months previously, walking in the suffrage parade would be their public coming out. Ida B. Wells was herself an honorary member, alongside suffragist and activist Mary Church Terrell, with whom she helped found the National Association of Women of Color. As recently as January, Wells co-founded the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, the first African-American organization dedicated to women’s suffrage nationwide. They were all committed suffragists.
But Paul was concerned that white women, especially southerners, would be reluctant to walk alongside black women. “As far as I know,” she told an editor, “we have to have a white procession, or a black procession, or not at all.
Letters have been exchanged. Paul’s parent organization, the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA), instructed him: All women should be allowed to walk. Paul had no choice but to “allow” Delta Theta Sigma to participate, but she did not announce their participation in the event’s otherwise full schedule. And she indicated that they and other black women should walk backwards.
I heard this directive from the undisputed general of the day worded in various ways, such as, “Paul pitched the idea of a low-profile African-American group near the back of the parade.” Or, “African Americans were encouraged to walk in a separate group towards the end of the alignment.” Fleet. Encouraged. It couldn’t have been that passive, and Ida B. Wells knew it. “If the women of Illinois don’t take a stand now in this grand democratic parade, then women of color are lost. . . . I won’t walk at all unless I can walk under the Illinois banner, ”she informed her delegation. But white Illinois women have not taken a united stand in defense of black women. The Illinois contingent told Wells to go to the rear of the roster. She refused, and when her condition was well under way in the parade, Wells stepped out of the crowd and walked with them alongside her white friends Virginia Brooks and Bell Squire.
March 5 in Chicago Daily tribune posted a triumphant photo of Wells and his supporters on the way. At least three other states – Delaware, Michigan and New York – had not yielded to segregation. Not enough.
For Alice Paul, the Great Suffrage Parade of 1913 was a huge success. Never has women’s suffrage received so much sympathetic national press. If women needed punches and harsh words, so be it.
But the parade once again illuminated the racism at the heart of white suffragism. Such fixation on the right to vote only for white women would bear fruit within the confines of the Nineteenth Amendment itself. “A white woman has only one handicap to overcome,” writes walker Mary Church Terrell, “that of sex. I have two – gender and race. “For women of color, the fight for equal voting rights would go on for decades to come.
The new book She votes: how American women got the vote and what happened next (Chronicles Books, 2020) By Bridget Quinn is available to order now.
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