I routinely listen to Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest, a podcast about women’s issues hosted by Hanna Rosin, June Thomas, and Noreen Malone. A few months ago, it focused on the planned Women’s March in Washington, D.C., the day after the presidential inauguration. Dismissing its importance, one participant questioned why anyone would want to take a bus to Washington, D.C., just to stand in the cold and hold a sign. Though I usually appreciate the irreverent, feminist tone of this podcast, this discussion infuriated me. I was especially struck — in the wake of the years that have seen North Carolina Moral Mondays, #NODAPL protests, protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and the spontaneous pouring into city streets throughout the country following Trump’s election — by the incredible privilege involved in dismissal of a compulsion to make oneself visible. And clearly, the visuals from the January 21 marches on seven continents render the dismissal void.
The idea for the Women’s March emerged in the days immediately after the election. One month post-election, I find myself thinking about the significance of this planned march, now and in terms of the past. At other moments of historical frustration and despair at rights not achieved, women have thrust themselves into the public sphere, even the streets, to stand up and say: We are here. You cannot ignore us, for your convenience or for your self-serving notions of citizen and nation. Women’s rights require recognition. In essence: women’s rights are human rights, as the march website and Hillary Clinton proclaim.
There are at least two historical, pre-suffrage precedents for this modern march: a protest at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia and the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. Both were timed to coordinate with auspicious occasions: the 1876 protest disrupted ceremonies on July 4, one hundred years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence (a document that ignored female citizens), while the 1913 parade was held the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson (no friend to woman suffrage).
“A Centennial Growl”
On July 4, 1876, Susan B. Anthony charged down an aisle in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall to interrupt a Declaration of Independence commemoration, presenting a Woman’s Declaration in its place. She and four other women scattered copies of it (drawn, Eleanor Flexner wrote, “from their capacious reticules”) as they exited the hall, and then stood outside and read the document, which proclaimed “our full equality with man in natural rights … with the absolute right to herself” to a gathered crowd.1
Lori Ginzberg classifies Anthony’s as an “audacious move,” and it certainly was: literally thrusting her body into a ceremony that had attempted to deny her an invitation, she demanded to be acknowledged as a rights-bearing person, and she made this claim in the most public of ways.2 To Isabella Beecher Hooker, Anthony described her compulsion “to protest against the outrage of our exclusion from equality of rights.”3 One Pennsylvania attendee summarized the significance, noting that it was intended to “‘go on file with the general archives of the day, so that the women of 1976 may see their predecessors of 1876 did not allow this centennial year of independence to pass without protest.’”4
The 1876 protest — termed by Anthony a “centennial growl” — was controversial even among women’s rights organizers.5 Lucy Stone, for one, questioned the wisdom of Anthony’s “sensational manner of presenting it.” Choosing a quieter means to speak truth to power, she instead prepared a small display protesting taxation without representation and offered a lecture on New Jersey voting rights. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, preferring her compatriot Anthony’s in-your-face activism, dismissed Stone’s efforts as “absurd.”6
One of the Most Impressively Beautiful Spectacles
In 1913, a new generation of suffragists led by Alice Paul opted to again thrust their bodies into a public, political celebration that excluded them. Hoping to persuade incoming president Woodrow Wilson of the need for a federal suffrage amendment, Paul, Lucy Burns, and other suffragists worked tirelessly to plan a parade for the day before his inauguration. Inez Milholland, on horseback, led the procession. She was followed by ten bands, twenty-six floats, and 8000 marchers. After they paraded up Pennsylvania Avenue, the group presented a play of sorts at the Treasury Building. The New York Times deemed it “one of the most impressively beautiful spectacles ever staged in this country.”7 Part of the spectacle involved the crowd, which at various points resembled a “drunken, howling mob” that turned on the participants, aided and abetted by a police force disinclined to stop the anti-suffrage violence.8
Describing Paul’s work, J. D. Zakniser and Amelia R. Fry explain how she seized control with the parade action, “claiming space on America’s street, Pennsylvania Avenue, and muscling her way into the limelight of a presidential inauguration.”9 She meant to “stage women’s exclusion,” to demonstrate loud and strong that “‘one-half of the people have not participated in choosing the ruler who is being installed.’”10 A parade pamphlet proclaimed, “We march today to give evidence to the world of our determination, that this simple act of justice shall be done.”11
There are cringe-worthy elements to both events: in 1876 Anthony insisted on the centrality of suffrage and dismissed as subordinate “19 other points of protest” that may have better appealed to working-class and other women, while the 1913 suffrage parade is remembered in particular for who it excluded.12 The film Iron-Jawed Angels depicts Ida B. Wells slipping into the Illinois delegation, from which she had been denied inclusion, demanding a space for African American women in the face of many white demands for their exclusion.
As audacious as she was, Alice Paul accommodated much racism, concerned that “black marchers … threatened her grand vision” of women united behind suffrage.13 (Questions of race and inclusivity also came up in the early planning of the 2017 march, whose title was changed after its first title, the Million Women March, was criticized for insensitively encroaching upon the 1997 African American women’s protest of the same name. In more recent days, @womensmarch has tweeted messages about upending white privilege, and the march itself represented all kinds of voices.)
Yet both events were also profoundly aspirational, demanding notice of women by the broader American public, claiming a place as constituents of a nation and new president. And this brings us back to the present. A description of the mission of the 2017 march concludes:
When I attended the January 21 march in Washington, it was in the spirit of women before me: I, along with upwards of 500,000 other women (and men), took up public space to demand that my personhood, and my human rights, be acknowledged. My flight to DC was full of women headed to the march, and when the flight attendant announced our arrival in the nation’s capitol, the plane erupted in cheers.
A day later, an assortment of signs declaring women’s rights lined the fence in front of the White House. This came after wave after wave of women, many in pink hats, had poured down Independence Avenue (and many other streets): the wave of women truly appeared endless, and being there was the most profound thing I have ever experienced. On that day, I carried a sign that read “Because women are PEOPLE,” and thought much about the many women who had made that demand before me. I especially admired the signs with shout-outs to Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, and all who have gone before us. Like the marches of our foremothers, our march was not perfect, but it made a clear statement, and I hope that it is the first of many.
- Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1959), 171; The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, volume 3, ed. Ann D. Gordon (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 239. Return to text.
- Lori Ginzberg, Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010), 99. Return to text.
- In Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, volume 3, 144-45 [underlined in original]. Return to text.
- Ginzberg, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 101. Return to text.
- Susan B. Anthony to Mathilde Franziska Anneke, September 27, 1875, The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, volume 3, ed. Ann D. Gordon (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 201 [underlined in original]. Return to text.
- Lucy Stone to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, August 3, 1876, ibid., 249; Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Isabella Beecher Hooker, July 5, 1876, ibid., 242 Return to text.
- Christine Lunardini, Alice Paul: Equality for Women (Lives of American Women, series editor Carol Berkin) (Westview, 2013), 55. Return to text.
- Linda J. Lumsden, INEZ: The Life and Times of Inez Milholland (Bloomington: Indiana University, 2004), 81. Return to text.
- J. D. Zakniser and Amelia R. Fry, Alice Paul: Claiming Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 126. Return to text.
- Zakniser and Fry, Alice Paul, 126, 128. Return to text.
- Zakniser and Fry, Alice Paul, 145. Return to text.
- Susan B. Anthony to Matilda Joslyn Gage, October 21, 1875, Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, volume 3, 205 [underlined in original]. Return to text.
- Zakniser and Fry, 144. For a depiction of Paul as “notoriously hostile” to black suffragists, see Lumsden, 89. Return to text.