(WOMENSENEWS)–On March 3, 1913, at least 5,000 advocates of women’s suffrage took to the streets of the nation’s capital, a city already crowded and abundantly decorated for Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inaugural.
The Elizabeth Cady Stanton generation was gone. Their successors had been working state by state to pass a suffrage amendment. Young Alice Paul had a different idea–a constitutional amendment–and a very different tactic of a public spectacle and lots of publicity.
Sixteen “suffrage pilgrims” had walked from New York City to Washington to participate, newspaper photographers clicking all the way.
Inez Milholland, dressed like Joan of Arc on a white horse, led off the parade. Women from countries where they were enfranchised came first, followed by groups of American nurses and doctors in uniform, actresses, homemakers, farmers, lawyers, teachers and college women in academic gowns. There were large floats–“heralds” on horseback-reporter Nellie Bly among them–and all-female marching bands. Along the parade route, vendors sold “Votes for Women” banners and 300,000 people, mostly men, stood watching.
At the Treasury building, covered bleachers held 20,000 spectators waiting for a performance of “The Allegory,” an extravagant series of pantomimes set to music with classically costumed women representing mythological figures tying concepts of peace and justice to “the cause.”
Violence broke out early and frequently. Marchers were spit at, cursed at, shoved, struck and fondled. Milholland had to charge with her horse to clear the way. Ambulance doctors and drivers had to fight the opposing crowds to reach the injured, which numbered at least 100.
The police, witnesses said, jeered. Eventually, the War Department called out mounted cavalry. Educator Helen Keller was too traumatized to make her scheduled speech. With so much press attention, the story spread widely, bringing sympathy from a horrified public. A Congressional inquiry later that month lambasted local authorities. Alice Paul had made her mark and the whole word was watching.
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.”