Women On the March

Women On the March

The Women’s March in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere the day after Donald J. Trump was sworn in as president attracted much attention. There were accolades for the feeling of sisterhood that pervaded the rallies across the nation, fueling a sense among liberals that women denied the presidency would be the ones to lead the next revolution. There was some criticism from conservatives as well, for the Pussyhats, the coarse language, and the talk from Madonna about blowing up the White House. But nowhere, in any venue of opinion left or right, was there any suggestion that women should not be marching in the streets. Little more than one hundred years before, that right of citizenship had been very much in doubt.

Even among men, the concept of the public square took time to embed itself into the country’s understanding of political discourse. To be sure, orators often took to the stage during the Great Awakening and the abolition movement it spawned, and party political rallies were a key to male identity in the 19th Century. But the idea of citizens marching to claim their rights was still a radical idea. Unemployed workers from Ohio traveled to Washington, D.C. seeking government jobs in 1894, the second year of a four-year recession.

Named Coxey’s Army after the businessman who led the procession, this “petition in boots” shocked the political establishment. This distrust of mass public gatherings persisted even into the 1930s, when a “Bonus Army” of World War I veterans, many out of work amid the Depression, descended on Washington seeking cash payments for their service certificates. The government response was to call out tanks to disperse them. If men marching in political protest was this discomfiting, seeing women marching elicited even more visceral, gendered discomfort.

Black and white photograph of a dirt road lined with tents and men in various states of repose.
Bonus Army camp, Anacostia, Washington, D.C. (Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress)

Harriot Stanton Blatch returned to the United States in the early 1900s after twenty years of living in England as the wife of a British businessman. She was shocked to find the movement launched by her mother Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1848 had lapsed into “a rut deep and ever deeper,” one that “bored its adherents and repelled its opponents.” On learning that Republicans planned a Get Out the Vote march on New York’s Fifth Avenue, she rented a second floor shop above the parade route, one with a large window. There she placed Inez Milholland, then still a Vassar girl, later a lawyer and orator, always a great beauty.

Captivated by her looks, some marchers broke ranks, climbing to the second floor to investigate. “Helen of Troy was not more upsetting,” Blatch later mused. On arrival, the smitten Republicans were greeted with piles of suffrage literature. No doubt they were disappointed, said Blatch, but “there was not a man, young or old, who did not know by the end of his march that there was such a thing as a live woman suffrage movement.”

By 1909, she organized the city’s first female parade. Having witnessed the tactics of British suffrage activists who excelled at open-air meetings, soapbox oratory and massive marches of public appeal, she understood the need to attract the widest possible display of interest. So she invited factory workers, middle class clubwomen and elite society hostesses to join. It was not easy. As Lucy Barber relates in her book about the making of the public square, tolerance for public demonstrations was still uneven. And as historian Linda Lumsden has noted, suffragists had to overcome not only city injunctions against Sunday events and historic limitations on massing in the public square, but gender bias as well. For women, parading “signified a revolt against cultural restraints regarding female public behavior.”

White woman in a long white dress and big white floppy hat rides a horse through the streets of Washington DC, followed by a crowd of men and women.
suffragist and lawyer Inez Milholland Boissevain (1886-1916) at a women’s suffrage parade in New York City, May 3, 1913. (New York Times/Flickr Commons & Library of Congress)

As I chronicle in my new book, Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote, the wealthy experienced their own inhibitions in taking to the streets. Many recoiled at the very notion of walking, for fear they would be denigrated as radicals or worse, streetwalkers. For this reason, and despite the pleas of her suffragist husband Richard, Elizabeth Callender Stevens resigned her position as head of the New Jersey Equal Franchise Society rather than participate in the 1911 parade. Others worried about the social opprobrium that might greet news of their involvement in politics. For still others, it was a test of the theory that women did not have the stamina for physical exertion.

When the bicycle craze hit America in the 1890s, women instinctively took to the new conveyance for the independence and feel of movement that it gave them. As suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony told journalist Nellie Bly, bicycling had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” Within a decade, the “strenuous life,” prompted by Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Louis Stevenson, and magazines such as Outing had even captivated some wealthy debutantes. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening was much read in elite circles, with its scenes of nudity and extramarital sex. Perhaps it was not any surprise then Elsie Clews Parsons stunned the guardians of Bailey’s Beach Club in Newport, R.I., by putting her bare feet (and shapely ankles, according to witnesses) into the Atlantic Ocean.

Many scoffed when Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, who had shocked society by divorcing William Kissam Vanderbilt in 1885, announced she planned to march in the 1912 suffrage parade. Her friend Marion Fish, wife of Illinois Railroad President Stuyvesant Fish, told her she doubted she could walk the whole of the route from 59th Street to the Washington Arch. “My dear Alva, you’ll never be able to do it,” she warned. “It must be three miles and you have scarcely walked a step in your life.” To which the 59-year-old Belmont replied, “All the more reason why I should begin now. After all, my dear, I must have something to interest me in my old age … I shall walk the whole way.” Which she did, prompting the New York Times to remark, “She had the appearance of a brave soldier facing fire, looking straight ahead.”

Some, including historian Mary Ritter Beard, preferred to participate in their automobiles. For the 1912 march, Blatch outlawed the practice. “Riding in a car did not demonstrate courage,” she wrote. “It did not show discipline. Women were to march on their own two feet out on the streets of America’s greatest city; they were to march year by year, better and better.”

By the following year, a young suffragist named Alice Paul planned a procession on the streets of Washington, D.C., the day before Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration. Police officials at first suggested she stage her march along Sixteenth Street, with its respectable middle class homes. But Paul understood symbolism, and worked connections to win approval for Pennsylvania Avenue – where the inaugural parade would take place the following day. The Inaugural Committee had banned women from marching on March 4. Paul wanted to make sure to paint a contrast with her parade on March 3. Women were now part of the fabric of the nation. They would no longer be told to sit home and be quiet.

Line of early automobiles in a procession in Washington DC, 1913.
Women’s Party automobile Procession Summer 1913. (Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress)

It was a procession meant to announce the arrival of a new generation of activists, eager to rebrand a tired movement. To achieve such ambitious goals, the 28-year-old Paul had conceived a pageant on the steps of the U.S. Treasury Department that would convey female achievement and artistry. Columbia was at center stage, flanked by Justice, Liberty, Charity, Peace and Hope. To buttress the visual impression with serious message, she had arranged floats depicting the six states that had already granted full suffrage to women, and the states now seeking it.

The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia was represented on one float, followed by signage outlining the first 75 years of the woman’s rights struggle on the next. As for the marchers, they would walk in professional affiliation, each group wearing a different color — actresses in rose, librarians in blue — giving the affair a rainbow cast. At the parade’s head, in a flowing white cape atop a white horse named Gray Dawn, rode Inez Milholland, the movement’s new Joan of Arc. In her wake came the parade’s message: “We demand an amendment to the United States Constitution enfranchising women of the country.”

Despite the vast planning and expenditure of talent, time and money, in the end the parade was marred by the haunting shadow of racial discrimination, and the stubborn menace of gendered anger. Southern suffragists had threatened to boycott the march when word spread that students from Howard University planned to join with other college suffragists. So Paul placed them at the parade’s back end, surrounded by male Quaker supporters. Ida B. Wells, a journalist who had awakened the nation to the injustice of lynching young black men, was president of a Chicago-based black suffrage group, the Alpha Club. She too wanted to march with the rest of the suffragists, in the Illinois delegation. Again Alice Paul demurred, fearing southern defections. A defiant Wells waited on the sidewalk until the Illinois delegation came in view, and then squeezed in between two friends, who assisted in the feint.

As for the mobs of men who clogged the parade route and spit on or abused the marchers, their resistance was no less painful to witness. These were the twin prejudices of the day, embedded into the fabric of life both public and private. Alice Paul did not want a debate over race, but she gladly took up the contest over gender. Local police, either overwhelmed or indifferent, did nothing to clear the path of marchers or still the caustic curses of anti-suffragist hoodlums. One of Paul’s top lieutenants, Elizabeth Seldon Rogers, called her brother-in-law, Secretary of War Henry Stimson.

Literally, he sent in the cavalry, clearing the streets one block at a time. The next morning’s newspapers told a story of dueling impressions. “Woman’s Beauty, Grace and Art Bewilder the Capital,” headlined the Washington Post in one front-page account.” Another front-page story, this one in the Chicago Daily Tribune, noticed “Mobs at Capital Defy Police; Block Suffrage Parade.” As the New York Tribune observed a few days later, “Capital Mobs Made Converts to Suffrage.”

Likely, Alice Paul would have cheered the Women’s March that began Trump’s presidency, much as she engineered the one that ushered in Wilson’s.

Featured image caption: Cover of program for the National American Women’s Suffrage Association procession, March 3, 1913. (Benjamin Dale/League of Women Voters/US Library of Congress)

Johanna Neuman is a historian and scholar-in-residence at American University. Her new book, Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote, is to be published September 5 by NYU Press.