100 Years Ago – Woman Suffrage Procession of 1913

Monday is the 100th Anniversary of a march in Washington for the rights of women to vote. Imagine it. Thousands of women (and a contingent of supporting men) in the streets in 1913 was a very challenging affair for some people. Women were not expected to display organizing muscle, and it was not welcome. And they were attacked – tripped, shoved, jeered at – by men in town for the presidential inauguration the next day.

Why is this a post at Blue Jersey? Because the key players are a couple of New Jerseyans; the fearless organizer Alice Paul, and the incoming president who was affronted by her “unladylike” tactics, Woodrow Wilson. Also figuring in the story, Princeton and even Helen Keller.

From the Library of Congress, by Sheridan Harvey, for the Library’s Women’s History Resource Guide. One hundred years ago:

On Monday, March 3, 1913, lawyer Inez Milholland Boissevain, clad in a white cape and riding a white horse, led the great women’s suffrage parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital. Behind her stretched a long procession, including nine bands, four mounted brigades, three heralds, more than 20 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 struggled for so many decades to secure women’s right to vote. The next sections celebrated working women, who were grouped by occupation and wore appropriate garb — nurses in uniform, woman farmers, homemakers, woman doctors and pharmacists, actresses, librarians — Harriet Hifton of the Library of Congress’s Copyright Division led the librarians’ contingent — and college women in academic gowns. Next came the state delegations and, finally, the separate section for male supporters of woman suffrage. According to the official program of the suffrage procession, 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 inauguration of Woodrow Wilson the following day — 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 part participated in them.” One policeman remarked that the women 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. The Chicago Tribune noted that Helen Keller “was so exhausted and unnerved by the experience in attempting to reach a grandstand … that she was unable to speak later at [Constitution 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 succor 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. Upon reaching the Treasury Building, a hundred women and children from the procession presented an allegorical tableau written especially for the occasion 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 arrived to little fanfare. One of his 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 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 recently been made at the state level with six western states granting woman suffrage, the movement had stalled at the national level.

Delegates from the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA, and its predecessor associations) 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 U.S. House. 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. 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. She also promised to raise the necessary funds. NAWSA happily accepted her offer 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 died or moved away.

Undaunted, Alice Paul convened the first meeting of her new committee on Jan. 2, 1913, in the newly rented basement headquarters at 1420 F Street N.W. She started raising funds. According to one friend, “it was very difficult to refuse Alice Paul.” She and the others she recruited worked nonstop for two months. By March 3 this fledgling committee had organized and found the money for a major suffrage parade with floats, banners, speakers and a 20-page official program. The total cost of the event was $14,906.08, a princely sum in 1913, when the average annual wage was $621. The programs and tableau each cost over $1,000.

Suffrage groups across the nation contributed to the success of the procession. From its New York headquarters, NAWSA urged suffrage supporters to gather in Washington:


Because this is the most conspicuous and important demonstration that has ever been attempted by suffragists in this country.

Because this parade will be taken to indicate the importance of the suffrage movement by the press of the country and the thousands of spectators from all over the United States gathered in Washington for the Inauguration.

This call was answered. On Feb. 12, with cameras clicking, 16 “suffrage pilgrims” left New York City to walk to Washington for the parade. Many other people joined the original hikers at various stages, and the New York State Woman Suffrage Association’s journal crowed that “no propaganda work undertaken by the State Association and Party has ever achieved such publicity.” One of the New York group, Elizabeth Freeman, dressed as a gypsy and drove a yellow, horse-drawn wagon decorated with Votes for Women symbols and filled with pro-suffrage literature, a sure way to attract publicity. Two weeks after the procession five New York suffragists, including Elizabeth Freeman, reported to the Bronx motion picture studio of the Thomas A. Edison Co. to make a talking picture known as a Kinetophone, which included a cylinder recording of one-minute speeches by each of the women. This film with synchronized sound was shown in vaudeville houses where it was “hooted, jeered and hissed” by audiences.

Officers of NAWSA prepared a strong letter for the New York hikers to deliver to President-elect Woodrow Wilson as they passed through Princeton, N.J. They urged that woman suffrage be achieved during his presidency and warned that the women of the United States “will watch your administration with an intense interest such as has never before been focussed upon the administration of any of your predecessors.” When the group reached Princeton, however, they delivered a much more modest proposal. They requested “an audience for not more than two minutes in Washington as soon after your arrival as possible.” Less than two weeks after his inauguration, Wilson received a suffrage delegation led by Alice Paul. In response to their impassioned plea, he replied that he had never given the subject any thought but that it would “receive my most careful consideration.” Hardly the wholehearted endorsement sought by the women.

The mistreatment of the marchers by the crowd and the police roused great indignation and led to congressional hearings in which more than 150 witnesses recounted their experiences; some complained about the lack of police protection; others defended the police. Before the inquiries were over, the superintendent of police of the District of Columbia had lost his job.

The public outcry and its accompanying press coverage proved a windfall for the suffragists. The Woman’s Journal proclaimed, “Parade Struggles to Victory Despite Disgraceful Scenes; Nation Aroused by Open Insults to Women — Cause Wins Popular Sympathy.” The New York Tribune announced, “Capital Mobs Made Converts to Suffrage.” At its next convention in November 1913, NAWSA praised the “amazing and most creditable year’s work” of Alice Paul’s Congressional Committee, stating that “their single-mindedness and devotion has been remarkable, and the whole movement in the country has been wonderfully furthered by the series of important events which have taken place in Washington, beginning with the great parade the day before the inauguration of the president.”

Not one to mince words, reporter Nellie Bly, who rode as one of the heralds in the parade, bluntly stated in the headline to her article on the march: “Suffragists Are Men’s Superiors.” With uncanny prescience, she added that it would take at least until 1920 for all states to grant woman suffrage. Despite the pageantry of 1913, Nellie Bly was right. It was to take seven more years before the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women full rights to vote, finally passed both chambers of Congress and was ratified by the required 36 states.

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