(WOMENSENEWS)–Inez Milholland was perhaps the suffrage movement’s most charismatic public figure, surely its most dramatic. In 1913, as President Woodrow Wilson was being inaugurated in Washington D.C., that was Milholland, robed in white and gold, riding astride a white charger at the head of 8,000 parading women, enduring the taunts and assaults of onlookers opposed to granting women the vote.
Although only in her late 20s, Milholland had been in the fight a long time. One of many wealthy white socialists, pacifists and reformers of the time, she had made her mark at Vassar College by organizing a rally in an adjacent graveyard when the college president forbade women’s movement speakers on campus. She went on to get herself arrested with militant suffragists in London and, New York University law degree in hand, to work against the death penalty and for women’s rights.
By 1916, with Wilson running for reelection, Milholland and her allies in the National Woman’s Party escalated their push for a federal suffrage amendment. Although she was ill with anemia–bruised all over her body and self-medicating with arsenic and strong coffee– Milholland set out on a grueling speaking tour of western states. From Cheyenne, Wyoming on August 7, she was to travel 12,000 miles, visiting 43 cities, and finishing in Chicago on November 4, election eve.
On October 22, she was onstage in Los Angeles. At the climax of her speech–“President Wilson, how long must women wait for liberty?” she fell to the floor.
She lingered, semi-comatose, for 10 weeks, receiving blood transfusions. Her husband, Eugen Boissevain–brother to two of Holland’s leading suffragists–and her sister were by her side. It was hoped that she could rise from her hospital bed to appear in Chicago, but she was too far gone. On November 25, 1916, a few months past her 30th birthday, she died, providing her movement with its first full-scale martyr. Boissevain, obviously drawn to strong women, later married the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.”