On Monday, March 3, 1913, attorney Inez Milholland, clad in a white cape astride a white horse, led the great woman suffrage parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital. Behind her, stretched a long line with nine bands, four mounted brigades, three heralds, about 24 floats, and more than 5,000 marchers.
Women from countries that had enfranchised women held the place of honor in the first section of the procession. Then came the “Pioneers” who had been struggling for so many decades to secure women’s right to vote. The next sections celebrated working women, who were grouped by occupation and wearing appropriate garb—nurses in uniform, women farmers, homemakers, women doctors and pharmacists, actresses, librarians, college women in academic gowns. The state delegations followed, and finally, a separate section for male supporters of women’s suffrage. All had come from around the country to “march in a spirit of protest against the present political organization of society, from which women are excluded.”
The procession began late, but all went well for the first few blocks. Soon, however, the crowds, mostly men in town for the following day’s inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, surged into the street making it almost impossible for the marchers to pass. Occasionally only a single file could move forward. Women were jeered, tripped, grabbed, shoved, and many heard “indecent epithets” and “barnyard conversation.” Instead of protecting the parade, the police seemed to enjoy all the ribald jokes and laughter and some even participated in them. One policeman explained that they should stay at home where they belonged. The men in the procession heard shouts of “Henpecko” and “Where are your skirts?” As one witness explained, “There was a sort of spirit of levity connected with the crowd. They did not regard the affair very seriously.”
But, to the women, the event was very serious. Helen Keller “was so exhausted and unnerved by the experience in attempting to reach a grandstand that she was unable to speak later at Continental Hall.” Two ambulances “came and went constantly for six hours, always impeded, and at times, actually opposed, so that doctor and driver literally had to fight their way to give help to the injured”. One hundred marchers were taken to the local Emergency Hospital. Before the afternoon was over, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, responding to a request from the chief of police, authorized the use of a troop of cavalry from nearby Fort Myer to help control the crowd.
Despite enormous difficulties, many of those in the parade completed the route. When the procession reached the Treasury Building, 100 women and children presented an allegorical tableau written especially for the event to show “those ideals toward which both men and women have been struggling through the ages and toward which, in co-operation and equality, they will continue to strive”. The pageant began with “The Star Spangled Banner” and the commanding figure of Columbia dressed in national colors, emerging from the great columns at the top of the Treasury Building steps. Charity entered, her path strewn with rose petals. Liberty followed to the “Triumphal March” from “Aida” and a dove of peace was released. In the final tableau, Columbia, surrounded by Justice, Charity, Liberty, Peace, and Hope, all in flowing robes and colorful scarves, with trumpets sounding, stood to watch the oncoming procession. The New York Times described the pageant as “one of the most impressively beautiful spectacles ever staged in this country”.
At the railway station a few blocks away, president-elect Woodrow Wilson and the presidential party arrived to little fanfare. One of the incoming president’s staff asked, “‘Where are all the people?’;—‘Watching the suffrage parade,’ the police told him.” The next day Wilson would be driven down the miraculously clear, police-lined Pennsylvania Avenue cheered on by a respectful crowd.
The Washington march came at a time when the suffrage movement badly needed an infusion of vigor, a new way to capture public and press interest. Women had been struggling for the right to vote for more than 60 years, and although progress had been made in recent years on the state level with six western states granting women suffrage, the movement had stalled on the national level. Delegates from the National American Woman Suffrage Association had arrived in the nation’s capital every year since 1869 to present petitions asking that women be enfranchised. Despite this annual pilgrimage and the millions of signatures collected, debate on the issue had never even reached the floor of the House of Representatives. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party became the first major political party to pledge itself “to the task of securing equal suffrage to men and women alike.” But, the Progressives lost the election.
In November 1912, as suffrage leaders were casting about for new means to ensure their victory, Alice Paul arrived at the NAWSA annual convention in Philadelphia. A 28-year-old Quaker from New Jersey, she had recently returned to the United States fresh from helping the militant branch of the British suffrage movement. She had been arrested repeatedly, been imprisoned, gone on a hunger strike, and been forcibly fed, an experience she described in an interview as “revolting.” Paul was full of ideas for the American movement. She asked to be allowed to organize a suffrage parade to be held in Washington at the time of the president’s inauguration, thus ensuring maximum press attention. NAWSA accepted her offer when she promised to raise the necessary funds and gave her the title chairman of the Congressional Committee. In December 1912, she moved to Washington where she discovered that the committee she chaired had no headquarters and most of the members had moved away or died.