Today, August 6 marks the 136th birthday of the courageous suffragist, Inez Milholland Boissevain, whose early death while campaigning for suffrage resulted in her being hailed as a “martyr” for the cause. Inez was born August 6, 1886 to a wealthy, progressive family in Brooklyn, New York. Her family spent much of their time in London, where she attended the Kensington High School for Girls. She attended Vassar College, graduated in 1909, and went on to receive a law degree from New York University in 1912.
From her early years Inez was drawn to work for social causes, demonstrating for the disenfranchised, the poor and those unable to help themselves. While at Vassar she joined Harriot Stanton Blatch’s Equality League of Self-Supporting Women (later the Women’s Political Union), despite the fact the Vassar President, James Monroe Taylor refused to allow Vassar students any discussion of the suffrage movement. She continued to demonstrate and rally for suffrage, and in 1913 worked for the WPU in Washington, DC, headed by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns.
March 3, 1913 Inez led the famous suffrage parade in Washington, DC, parading down Pennsylvania Avenue on a majestic white horse. In May of that year she reprised that role, leading a massive parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City. Inez became the symbol of the “new women” whose beauty, brains and brave spirit rallied thousands of women to work for suffrage.
In 1916 Alice Paul convinced Inez to undertake a tour of the western states in an effort to gain backing for the movement from women in states that had already granted women suffrage. But Inez had been in poor health for some time, and the arduous trip proved too much for her. On October 19, 1916, while giving a speech in Los Angeles she suddenly collapsed, and died ten weeks later from pernicious anemia. An article in the Philadelphia Public Lodger at the time of her death described her as epitomizing the “determination of modern women to live a full free life, unhampered by tradition.”
The woman suffrage movement claimed her as the first martyr to the cause, and her work for suffrage is regarded as some of the most important and influential. Unfortunately, she died before the battle was won, but will always be remembered for her unstinting devotion to the cause of freedom everywhere. Her funeral service was held in Statuary Hall under the dome of the Capitol, the first woman to be so honored.
The poster featured below of her on her white horse became a potent symbol of the cause.