A lot of folks are making a very big deal about a parade in Washington, D.C. a hundred years ago today. This is why.
Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were uppity women. Worse they were angry, uppity women. They were more youthful than the dowagers whose decades’ long drive for women’s suffrage had been noble, but fruitless. Paul had been in England and been impressed with how Christabel Pankhurst and her mother Emmeline, leaders of a new militant suffrage movement which was making a sensation by using direct action tactics such as publicly heckling politicians, window smashing, and rock throwing, were raising the profile of the cause there.
When Paul returned to the United States in 1910 she joined the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and soon advanced to a leadership role. Although the national organization was committed to a state-by-state strategy as its top priority, Paul was made Chair of the Congressional Committee with the responsibility of lobbying for Federal action. Carrie Chapman Catt, formidable leader of the NAWSA, did not have much faith in Paul or her project, but was probably glad to have the gadfly out her hair in New York where she was carefully planning an elaborate political effort to win state approval of the Vote by referendum.
By 1912 Paul and Burns had set up shop in the Capitol as the as a semi-autonomous affiliate of the NAWSA called the Congressional Union.
In the Presidential election that year, Catt had broken ranks with many older suffragists who were traditionally Republican, and endorsed Woodrow Wilson, a distinguished academic and supposedly a new breed of progressive Democrat, in the hopes that he would swing his party behind suffrage.
Paul, however, did not want to wait for a painfully slow lobbing process to nudge the new Chief Executive in the right direction. She declared her intention to “hold his feet to the fire” from the very beginning with a huge Suffrage demonstration on the eve of his inaugural.
Don’t imagine a modern march on Washington with mobs of somewhat disorganized marchers carrying banners, signs, and puppets in an indistinguishable mass thronging of the Capitol’s wide avenues. Paul’s Women’s Suffrage Procession was planned out with military precision, the thousands of women marchers were arrayed in designated units, marching abreast. Most units wore white, the symbol of purity and adopted color of the suffrage movement. The procession would be led by equestrians and floats with women as various allegorical figures broke up the ranks of marchers. An elaborate program was printed for onlookers and a proper parade permit had been obtained from local authorities.
Wilson arrived by train from his New Jersey home on Monday, March 3, 1913, the day before his inauguration. As the first Democrat since Grover Cleveland to break the grip of Republican dominance and as a man of known Southern roots and sympathies, he likely expected a whoopty do reception. Instead only a handful of dignitaries, politicians, and the press were at hand. Everybody else in town seems to have been lining Pennsylvania Avenue.
No wonder, for Paul had put on a dazzling show led by the beautiful blonde lawyer and activist Inez Milholland astride a white horse in flowing Greek robes. Behind her, Paul and her friends, also on horseback, led 8,000 marchers, almost all women, and a few men, on parade.
An estimated half a million onlookers crowded the route including cheering supporters, the idly curious, a lot of very, very angry men.
The procession was quickly attacked by mobs of men along the route, throwing rocks and battering participants with clubs and fists as the police stood by without intervening. Retaining as much courage and dignity as they could muster, the marchers continued on their route while running a virtual gauntlet. Before the rear of the march reached its destination some hastily mobilized troops from Fort Myer arrived to provide some protection. Over 800 marchers, almost all women, were injured in the attacks.
Reaction to the parade and the attacks threatened to overwhelm news of the Presidential inauguration the next day, much to the annoyance of Wilson. And to the delight of Paul who regarded the operation as successful in every way. She was sure that public outrage would lead to greater support of the cause.
A subsequent investigation held the police derelict in their duty for failing to protect the lawful demonstration and the Police Chief was fired.
In New York Catt was less than thrilled and feared the bold confrontation would alienate male supporters critical for here state-by-state attack. None the less Catt staged her own giant parade down Fifth Avenue in May as the kick off for her ballot initiative plan. A fifth the marchers in her parade were men.
The breach over militancy and confrontation between Catt and Paul became irreparable in 1914 and Paul’s group severed ties with the national organization. Two years later they reorganized as the National Women’s Party (NWP.)
They continued to press Wilson for action with daily picketing at the White House. When the picketing continued even after the country entered World War I, Wilson had Paul and dozens of her associates and supporters arrested, jailed, and force fed during hunger strikes. When word got out about the abuse, Wilson was embarrassed yet again. Exasperated, Wilson finally declared his support of a Federal Constitutional Amendment for women’s suffrage as a “war measure” and in recognition of the contribution of women to the effort. He made no mention of Paul or the NWP, but no one doubted that their stubborn militancy had forced his hand.
Both houses of Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919. Then the battle moved to ratification by state legislature the state-by-state struggle advocated by Catt was back on. The NAWSA and NWP played a kind of “good cop/bad cop” tag team on state legislatures with Catt’s group wooing them with compliments and kindness, and Paul threatening disruption and defiance.
It proceeded, all things considered, with astonishing speed. On August 19, 1920 Tennessee passed the Amendment with one vote, securing the necessary support to become a part of the Constitution. When the Secretary of State certified at the adoption on August 26, Paul and her cohorts proudly unfolded a banner on the NWP headquarters building in Washington and toasted the event—with grape juice, of course.