One hundred six years ago today, March 3, 1913, suffragists staged the first national suffrage parade in Washington D.C. It was the brainchild of young suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, founders of the National Congressional Committee, (an auxiliary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association – NAWSA). Alice and Lucy had worked together in the suffrage movement in England, and were now working to secure no less than an amendment to the US constitution guaranteeing American women the right to vote.
With the goal of eliciting maximum publicity, the ambitious parade was timed for the day before President Wilson’s inauguration (then held in March). Since President Wilson was not a fan of woman suffrage, the goal was to embarrass him, and it met its mark. When he arrived at Union Station, expecting a hero’s welcome, he was met with a paltry few supporters, and when said to have asked where everyone was he was told they were on Pennsylvania Avenue “watching the suffrage parade.”
Banners fluttered. Trumpets blasted. The beautiful Inez Milholland moved her white steed to the center of Pennsylvania Avenue to start the parade. The New York Times reported 500,000 spectators watched as over 5000 marchers, nine bands, and twenty floats moved in orderly sequence. In capes and caps marched social workers, teachers, librarians, and business women. Joining the parade was a brown-clad group of suffrage “Pilgrims,” led by Long Island’s Rosalie Gardiner Jones who had walked all the way from New York City and who now had to battle their way through the crowds to join the marchers. On the steps of the Treasury building over one hundred women and girls, dressed in flimsy white gowns shivered as they waited to enact an inspiring dance. And a group of African-American suffragists, led by Ida B. Wells-Barnett struggled to find a welcoming spot within the group.
Suddenly things began to go terribly wrong. The path of the parade began to close until there was no room for the marchers or floats. Rowdy gangs of thugs tore at the suffragists’ banners and clothes, hurled lit cigarettes and insults and attacked the floats. The police did little to protect the marchers, and indeed sometimes joined in the abuse. Children were pushed and slapped. The parade ended in a rout.
But despite this seeming defeat all was not lost. Newspapers reported on the bravery of the marchers, claiming the police mismanagement was “the worst in the world.” The suffragists were ultimately showered with public indignation and sympathy, and garnered more positive publicity than an orderly parade ever could have brought. Alice Paul would go on to form the Congressional Union, lead suffragists to picket the white House, suffer through hunger strikes and force feedings until ultimate victory was won with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
As we plan to celebrate the centennial of that victory in 2020 the story of that seemingly ill-fated parade resonates once again. We have seen many marches, parades and demonstrations since, but that huge, historic parade marked the beginning of a time when women would leave their comfort zones to demonstrate in public for a greater good, and to secure for generations to come the right to have their voices heard. It wasn’t the first nor the last women’s parade, but it will not soon be forgotten.