The forgotten history of women’s suffrage in the United States
Of the many thousands of women who showed up for the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017, likely very few knew about the Woman Suffrage Procession of 1913. So much of suffrage history has been forgotten, the good and the bad.
The 100th anniversary of ratification of the 19th Amendment, taking place this Aug. 18, has brought to light many stories of the struggle for the women’s vote, perhaps none a more troubling object lesson than the 1913 Procession.
Held the day before newly elected Democrat Woodrow Wilson was sworn into office for his first term, more than 8,000 women marched “in a spirit of protest against the present political organization of society, from which women are excluded,” according to the day’s official program. In other words, women demanded the vote.
The front of that same program depicted a young white woman on a white horse at the head of the procession, her hair styled in a sleek bob in Joan of Arc meets “New Woman” flapper fashion. There really was such a woman at the head of the 1913 march: Inez Milholland, who would, like Joan of Arc herself, quite literally die for the cause. There was so much courage involved in the fight for women’s right to vote. There was also racism. When march organizer and suffrage strategist Alice Paul told Black suffragists to march in the back that day, journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells wouldn’t have it.
What follows is an excerpt from my book, She Votes: How U.S. Women Won Suffrage, and What Happened Next.
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Daybreak March 3, 1913, was clear and cold, with zero chance of rain or snow. The day before the inauguration of the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, was an excellent day for a suffrage parade.
Ida B. Wells might have sat on her boardinghouse bed that morning pulling on first one pair of stockings, then another. Behind her on the coverlet may have lain the dark shapes of her heaviest skirt and coat, a thick fur muff alongside them. Bright beside those, a curving white hat covered in stars, with matching scarf and pennant. The stars signified states with full suffrage. The other side of the scarf declared in bold black letters: Illinois. Her home state. Wells no doubt assumed she’d be alone in a sea of white women, but she wasn’t afraid to stand out. Her creed, always: “One had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”
‘Deeds not words’ was to be our permanent motto. —Emmeline Pankhurst
The parade’s instigator, Alice Paul, had made it clear that Wells and other Black women ought to stay home. Their presence would only complicate matters. The suffrage message should be precise, crystal clear. Which to Paul and too many others meant white.
While a defiant Wells got dressed, Paul was probably already hunched against the cold on Pennsylvania Avenue, the broad brim of her hat tipped back to better assess the long straight shot that ran from where her buttoned boots met pavement all the way to the front door of the White House. Like a general surveying the battlefield, Paul was brooding, thoughtful, with a grim countenance to match the seriousness of her aim.
I picture her plotting over every detail in her mind, pacing slowly, with barely contained energy, like a big cat assessing its prey.
In just eight hours, upwards of 8,000 women would march down Pennsylvania Avenue in orchestrated waves. Costumed, carrying signs, totally organized from tip to toe, they would broadcast their common message: “Votes for women.” There would be floats, marching bands, banners, dancing, theatrical performances, horses, and more. The setup was spectacular. At a cost of nearly $15,000 (over $382,000 in today’s dollars), raised via donations spearheaded by Paul, it had better be. Paul breathed in the crisp morning air with satisfaction and allowed herself a small smile.
Paul had grown tired of talking about women’s suffrage. After 65 years of meetings, what did suffragists have to show for themselves? Schisms and squabbles. Reunification and doldrums. And though the “founding mothers” had finally reunited their feuding organizations in 1890, what had really changed? Yes, 11 states had full suffrage, but not nearly enough. Women had a say in naming just 84 electors of the 483-member electoral college. Whispers drowned out by a roar. Paul was done with state-by-state ratification; it was time for a constitutional amendment or nothing. This parade was her shot across the bow. American women were coming for what was theirs.
Like many a revolutionary American before her, Alice Paul was a Quaker, descendent of Pennsylvania’s own William Penn. So she was in some ways a born iconoclast, raised like all Quakers with the ideal of gender equity. She’d been attending suffrage meetings with her mother since shortly after her birth in 1885. Women’s equality had always been as obvious to her as air and water. A fact of nature.
But Paul didn’t become radicalized until she’d graduated from Swarthmore, earned her master’s at Penn, and moved to England to study economics. In England, she encountered the militant suffragist—a.k.a. suffragette—a variety that had yet to reach American shores. “Deeds not words” was the motto of the British version of the movement, as embodied by its leader, Emmeline Pankhurst. Alice Paul would participate in Pankhurst’s activism, then bring it home.
Let’s dive into suffragist vs. suffragette waters. We may in fact be overdue, but historically here is where the terms take on significance. You might know “suffragette” from the Mary Poppins song “Sister Suffragette,” or from “Suffragette City,” by rock god David Bowie, both of which name check a radical movement in British history. In 1906 English women fighting for suffrage had been mockingly referred to in the Daily Mail as “suffragettes.” As in, Ho ho, simmer down there, little ladies, you weaker sex, you mini-everything. To which Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, along with other militant ladies said, Ha ha, why yes, we’re prancing, mincing suffragettes in skirts, as they planted bombs at St. Paul’s Cathedral (and elsewhere) and threw themselves under the hooves of the king’s horse. They took back the word.
Because of this association with radicalism, American women tended to prefer suffragist rather than suffragette. Counterintuitively, suffragette is the more radical term. Kind of like Riot Grrrl seizing power in language that sought to shame.
For her part, Paul was up for anything. Suffragette, suffragist, whatever. “Deeds not words” would also be her motto. Jailed seven times for her suffrage activity in Britain—a country where she wasn’t even a citizen (it was the principle of the thing)—she went on hunger strike and faced the torture of being force-fed for British women. In America, she’d risk more. Prison time, forced-feeding, attempted institutionalization for insanity, gunshots, public ridicule, and scorn. But if she was anything, Paul was a fearless PR genius, willing to go to any lengths to give newspapers something worth writing about.
I’d guess Ida B. Wells—basically disinvited from the suffrage parade but going anyway—wished Paul would go to hell. Not that it’s a competition, but as an investigative journalist and internationally known anti-lynching activist with a bull’s-eye on her back, Wells was arguably the more fearless woman.
Born enslaved in Mississippi in 1862, just six months before the Emancipation Proclamation, Wells came of age in the heady years after the Civil War, nourished in the hopeful air of Black freedom, which included witnessing her father and other Black men vote. But such liberty did not last. The end of Reconstruction quickly brought racist laws aimed at bringing Blacks under the control of whites.
At age 16 Wells lost both parents and her youngest brother to yellow fever. She became a teacher and raised her seven younger siblings herself. Though head of a large household, she made less than half what white teachers made. In search of better pay, Wells moved to Memphis, where she taught during the school year and attended college in the summer. A born writer, Wells never shied away from self-expression. Here she is, age 24: “I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts.”
In 1889 Wells became co-owner and editor of the Free Speech and Headlight newspaper, where she inveighed against segregation. She highlighted egregious examples such as the school where she taught, for which she was fired by the Memphis Board of Education. But it was in the murder of her friend Thomas Moss, owner of a popular local grocery, that Wells found her unwanted calling. Moss was dragged from a Memphis jail cell—where he was being held for the crime of defending his business from white thugs—and summarily shot along with two others. Outraged, Wells exhorted the Memphis Black community in print: “There is, therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.”
An angry mob destroyed the offices of the Free Speech and Headlight and threatened to kill its editor. Wells bought a gun and moved to Chicago. There she got married, had four children, and conducted an international campaign to confront whites with the horror of lynching. “It is with no pleasure that I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed,” she wrote in Southern Horrors, a bestseller. “[But] somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.” She was 30 years old.
Frederick Douglass wrote to Wells in 1895. “I have spoken, but my word is feeble in comparison,” he said, adding, “Brave woman!” Almost 20 years later, Wells was still willing to risk everything for justice.
By 9 a.m. crowds already lined the Suffrage Parade route, though the official start time wasn’t for six hours. By 3 p.m. the crowd was estimated at 500,000, many of them in D.C. for the inauguration of newly elected President Woodrow Wilson the following day. Some saw it as an amusing appetizer to the following day’s main event. Some came for the spectacle of seeing women make fools of themselves in public. Some came to be inspired and to cheer on valiant women from across the country. Many came to make trouble.
As promised by the official program, a woman on horseback led the parade. Noted labor lawyer Inez Milholland—famous for her beauty—sat tall in white on a white steed, a gold crown setting off dark curls that spilled across her shoulders and down her back. She rode ahead of a banner proclaiming, “Forward out of darkness, forward into light.”
The New York Times described the effect as “one of the most impressively beautiful spectacles ever staged in this country.” Behind Milholland came a horse-drawn float carrying the “Great Demand Banner” in dark caps against a white field: WE DEMAND AN AMENDMENT TO THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES ENFRANCHISING THE WOMEN OF THIS COUNTRY.
In other words, We look nice; we’re not playing nice.
Following the Great Demand came seven distinct sections of marchers, including floats for each country in the world that already had national female suffrage: Australia, Finland, New Zealand, and Norway. Walking behind them were women from countries where, like the United States, women had partial suffrage. After them, women marched by profession with outfits to match, not always easy to come up with. Doctors and nurses, yes. Writers resorted to throwing ink on their clothes. Sculptor Adelaide Johnson, who would create the suffrage Portrait Monument from eight tons of Carrara marble (unveiled in 1921), marched with the artists. Many college-educated women marched with their alma maters, such as Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, and Bryn Mawr. Each of the 48 states had its own parade delegation, too (like a suffrage Olympics opening ceremony); Jeannette Rankin was among those marching for Montana, and in just three years she’d be back in D.C. as the first female member of Congress. There were women dressed as Lady Liberty, as Columbia, as Greek maidens. Paul instructed marchers to wear the colors of the British suffragettes—green, white, and violet—their first letters standing for Give Women the Vote. But more marchers, not wanting to ally themselves with such a militant group, wore white and gold, the colors of international suffrage. There were four mounted brigades, nine marching bands, chariots, numerous floats, and more. In the Washington Post’s succinct subhead that day, “Floats, Bands, Skirted Cavalry, and Beauties Take Part.”
Not everyone was awed by the extravaganza. “The suffrage parade was too funny,” wrote Eleanor Roosevelt, who watched from the sidelines. She was particularly amused by the “nice fat ladies with bare legs and feet posed in tableaux on the Treasury steps!” Those fat ladies were freezing while Eleanor giggled.
Other onlookers weren’t laughing. From the beginning, men lining the route kicked, hit, and spit on women, blocking their path and nearly shutting down all forward progress. Ambulances came and went all day, and over a hundred people ended up at the local hospital. It was so contentious that, according to the Washington Post, “doctor and driver literally had to fight their way to give succor to the injured.”
The police, all men, did not come to the aid of marchers. They mostly watched in bemusement as women were spat on, struck, and groped, their costumes and banners torn, lit cigarettes thrown at them. Children in the march cried, and so did some women. One policeman reportedly told women under assault: “There would be nothing like this if you women would all stay home.” Much to their credit, a troop of Boy Scouts helped hold back the crowd by using walking sticks, and men from the Maryland Agriculture College used their bodies to form a human chain between the marchers and the crowd. A regiment of National Guard troops—present for the following day’s inauguration—interceded to clear an intersection. Finally, order was somewhat gained by Army cavalry, staged at nearby Fort Myer at Paul’s urging. The cavalry forcibly cleared a path so thousands of determined women could struggle on. The violence would prompt a Senate investigation into police culpability in failing to control the crowd and even in egging on aggression against marchers.
No one was in greater peril than the Black marchers, who were segregated in the back by design.
This, I am sorry to report, must be laid squarely at the feet of Alice Paul. Well aware that Washington, D.C., is essentially a Southern city, Paul also knew how much a constitutional amendment depended on Southern votes. So when women from Howard University, a historically Black college, petitioned Paul to walk alongside their college-educated peers, Paul demurred.
For the 22 women of Delta Sigma Theta, the first Black sorority in the American Greek system and founded at Howard less than two months before, walking in the suffrage parade would be their public coming-out party. Ida B. Wells was herself an honorary member, along with suffragist and activist Mary Church Terrell, with whom she’d help found the National Association of Colored Women. As recently as January, Wells had cofounded the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, the first African-American organization dedicated to women’s suffrage nationwide. These were committed suffragists, all.
But Paul was concerned that white women, especially Southern women, would balk at marching alongside Black women. “As far as I can see,” she told one editor, “we must have a white procession, or a Negro procession, or no procession at all.”
Letters were exchanged. Paul’s parent organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), schooled her: All women must be permitted to march. Paul had no choice then but to “allow” Delta Sigma Theta to take part, but she did not advertise their participation in the otherwise comprehensive program of the event. And she indicated that they and other Black women should march in back.
I’ve heard this direction by the undisputed general of the day phrased in various ways, such as, “Paul floated the idea of a discrete African-American group, near the back of the parade.” Or, “African-Americans were encouraged to march in a segregated group near the end of the lineup.” Floated. Encouraged. It couldn’t have been so passive as that, and Ida B. Wells knew it. “If the Illinois women do not take a stand now in this great democratic parade then the colored women are lost…I shall not march at all unless I can march under the Illinois banner,” she informed her delegation. But Illinois white women did not take a united stand in defense of Black women. The Illinois contingent told Wells to go to the back of the lineup. She refused, and when her state was well underway in the parade, Wells stepped out of the crowd and marched with them alongside her white friends Virginia Brooks and Bell Squire.
On March 5 Chicago’s Daily Tribune published a triumphant picture of Wells and her supporters en route. At least three other states—Delaware, Michigan, and New York—had not given in to segregation. Not nearly enough.
To Alice Paul, the Great Suffrage Parade of 1913 was an overwhelming success. Never had women’s suffrage received so much sympathetic national press. If it took women taking some beatings and harsh words, so be it.
But the parade illuminated yet again the racism at the heart of white suffragism. Such fixation on voting rights solely for white women would bear fruit in the limitations of the 19th Amendment itself. “A white woman has only one handicap to overcome,” wrote marcher Mary Church Terrell, “that of sex. I have two—both sex and race.” For women of color, the fight for equal voting rights would still carry on for decades.
The new book She Votes: How U.S. Women Won Suffrage, and What Happened Next (Chronicle Books, 2020) by Bridget Quinn is available to order now.
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