Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: Suffragists in Washington, D.C.

The Woman Suffrage parade of 1913 was the first civil rights march to use the nation’s capital—and a presidential inauguration (Woodrow Wilson)—as its backdrop. It may have been the beginning of the final push for American women’s right to vote, but it was a long haul: After some sixty years of campaigning, it  would take seven more to win the franchise. Rebecca Boggs Roberts has described the 1913 event in delightful detail in Suffragists in Washington, D.C.: The 1913 Parade and the Fight for the Vote, published by The History Press. Roberts will speak at the new Politics and Prose at the Wharf, 70 District Square SW   Washington, DC, Monday, January 22, 2018, at 7pm. She will also speak about the final push for the 19th Amendment at a Smithsonian Associates event on Thursday, March 1, 2018, at 6:45pm. A more complete list of Roberts’s events can be found at her website. This excerpt is from the book’s introduction; you can buy the book at local booksellers or direct from the publisher.

LUCKILY, MONDAY, March 3, 1913 dawned bright and clear. It was cold, but that would only really be a problem for the barefoot dancers on the marble steps of the Treasury Department. Rain or snow would have been disastrous. A little chill could be expected in Washington in early March, and everything that could be expected had been planned for. The marchers were set to gather at 2:00 near the Garfield monument on Maryland Avenue, and Grand Marshal Jane Burleson would lead them out into Pennsylvania Avenue at exactly 3:00. A daisy chain of trumpeters would pass the news down the parade route that the march was underway, and the fantastic allegorical pageant would begin on the Treasury steps. It would take Burleson and her attendants about 45 minutes to lead the procession the mile and a quarter from the Peace Monument in front of the Capitol to the site of the pageant. By the time parade herald Inez Milholland reached the steps in front of the Treasury Department, the pageant would be coming to its glorious dramatic finale, and the participants would stand in dignified silence as the rest of the five thousand marchers proceeded down the parade route to Continental Hall. The pageant cast would join them there later, and perform the final tableau again for the triumphant crowd.

No detail had been overlooked. Alice Paul made sure of it. This whole spectacle was her brainchild, and she had begun making plans and assigning tasks even before the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) had endorsed the idea or given her an official title. Now Alice Paul was head of NAWSA’s Congressional Committee, and chair of the parade committee. She badgered DC police chief Richard Sylvester into granting her a permit to use Pennsylvania Avenue. She lobbied the House Committee on the District of Columbia to pass a bill shutting down the streetcars between 3:00 and 5:00. She used her connections in the Taft White House to make sure there was a cavalry unit standing by at Fort Myer, in case

Author Rebecca Boggs Roberts. / Photo by Moshe Zusman.

the DC police provided inadequate crowd control, although Chief Sylvester assured her they wouldn’t be necessary. She negotiated with the inaugural committee to use the grandstand constructed at 14th Street, so distinguished guests could watch the pageant then enjoy the parade. Her public relations machine was relentless, making sure the march had been in the news so often and so thoroughly, it was almost considered one of the formal celebrations of Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration. Paul fed pithy quips to reporters wanting responses to the antics of the anti-suffrage crowd. She held daily, sometimes hourly, rallies and fundraisers. She kept track of dozens of special train cars which carried hundreds of suffragists to Washington, each of whom needed a place to stay and wanted special attention. She arranged for local Boy Scouts to line the parade route. She encouraged local women’s clubs to sell sandwiches and scalloped oysters to the spectators. One planning volunteer remarked she had worked with Paul for three months before she found time to take her hat off.

Then there were the details of the parade itself. Jane Burleson and her attendants, both on horseback and on foot, would lead. Next came the striking figure of Inez Milholland, routinely described as “the most beautiful suffragist,” in flowing white robes and a golden crown atop a glamorous white horse. Behind her followed a wagon with a massive sign reading, “We demand an amendment to the Constitution of the United States enfranchising the women of this country.” And after that, no fewer than seven sections of marchers. Representatives of nations with full suffrage each designed a float ridden by costumed participants. The nations where women enjoyed partial suffrage carried banners, and donned more costumes. A series of floats represented the changing status of American women since the suffrage movement began in the 1840s. Professional women, all in matching thematic dress, were organized by occupation. The writers’ group had purposefully stained their costumes with ink. The states where women could vote each sent a delegation, including members of Congress who had to sneak past the Sergeant at Arms to participate, since Congress was actually in session. Golden chariots. Women’s marching bands. College women grouped by alma mater. A massive reproduction of the Liberty Bell. “General” Rosalie Jones and her army of pilgrims, who had hiked all the way from New York. Everything was designed to be visually striking for the live show, and look great in photographs.

The allegorical tableaux on the Treasury Department steps were similarly well-designed. Dozens of women and girls in classical costumes created scenes meant to represent Columbia summoning Justice, Charity, Liberty, Peace, Plenty and Hope to the stirring sounds of the Star Spangled Banner and the Triumphal March from Aida. Paul hired professionals to plan the pageant, wanting to make sure this show surpassed the amateur theatrics of past suffrage events. The whole procession cost an astounding $14,906.08, but it was money well spent. The spectacle would surely stand in stark contrast to the official Wilson inaugural parade planned for the next day, which organizers had bragged would be marked by “Jeffersonian simplicity and dignity.”

Not all the planning went smoothly. The newspapers loved General Jones and her hikers, and their publicity threatened to overshadow the march. They had arrived in Washington just the day before, to a hero’s welcome from the public. But their reception from the local suffragists was markedly cooler, and General Jones had noticed. Paul also faced a dilemma about how to handle a group of African-American women from Howard University who wanted to march with the college groups. Paul was torn: as a Quaker, she did not want to discriminate based on race. But as an organizer, she worried delegations of southern women would drop out if the march were integrated. Finally, the Howard women were allowed to join, but were not listed in the official program.

And then there was the petty squabble over the colors for the banners leading each section. Paul had originally hoped for a scheme of green, white, and violet, the colors of the suffrage movement in England. In fact, some believed wearing those colors was an undercover way for women to quietly support suffrage, since they began with the same letters as Give Women [the] Vote. But NAWSA officials worried that adopting that palate would be seen as endorsing the more militant tactics of the British suffragists, and insisted on the international suffrage colors of white and yellow. Paul chose all of the above. And although photographs of the event are of course in black and white, contemporary accounts of the parade never fail to mention the riot of colors. Every last detail was meticulously planned to make sure the spectacle was grand, important, and memorable.

It started out pretty well. Pennsylvania Avenue looked awfully crowded to Burleson, and the policeman she asked for reassurance was singularly unhelpful. But she was able to start the parade only fifteen minutes late, and the first trumpet herald dutifully sent the signal down the route to the next trumpeter, and so on fourteen blocks to the Treasury building. The pageant began, admired by a packed grandstand. More and more people crowded around 14th Street as the show continued. Columbia, dressed in armor, called forth each of the virtues. Justice and her attendants were all dressed in purple. Charity arrived surrounded by adorable children and rose petals. Grand Liberty struck a gallant figure that would feature prominently in news photographs. Peace released a live dove. Plenty and her attendants rushed down the steps to the plaza. Finally Hope joined the tableau, and the magnificent picture was complete. The folks on the street, who now numbered in the thousands, and the VIPs in the grandstand, including outgoing first lady Helen Taft, said they were very impressed. At the end of the pageant, the entire cast moved forward in formation to watch for the head of the parade, which was timed to pass at any moment. They waited. The crowd grew bored. They waited some more. The first lady left. They waited as long as they could. The crowd became gradually less friendly, but no less numerous. Finally, after almost an hour, Columbia and the virtues could no longer stand the cold marble on their bare feet and went inside the Treasury building to wait. Where was the parade?

Ten blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue, the parade was stalled. The spectators at 5th Street had spilled into the road, and there was no way for the marchers to proceed. Jane Burleson looked for the policemen who were supposed to escort her, and couldn’t find them. From atop her horse, Burleson had a pretty good view down the Avenue, and what she saw was a “horrible, howling mob.” Despite the assurances of the chief of police, the parade route was not clear, and it looked as though it would not become clear any time soon. And the thousands of spectators blocking the road were not all friendly. After all, most were men in town for the Wilson inauguration, scheduled for the next day. The suffrage parade was just a side show. Alice Paul realized her meticulously planned day was in danger of collapsing. She had put on academic robes, expecting to join her fellow Swarthmore alumnae in the college section. But now she and Lucy Burns got in a car, and drove slowly down the parade route ahead of the marchers, trying desperately to clear a path. As she drove, Paul saw boy scouts valiantly holding the crowd back in places, while the policemen did nothing. She saw drunken men yelling insults. She saw the crowd surge back into the marchers’ way as soon as her car had passed.

There was nothing for it but to press on. Burleson and Milholland gamely led the way, stopping and starting, narrowing the march formation to single file where the spectators crowded the Avenue. The women began to feel increasingly threatened. Some of the marchers on horseback fought back, kicking out at the crowds with their boots. Some of the women on foot used batons and flags to push the more aggressive men back. Burleson and Milholland fought their way nine more blocks to 14th Street. But it was slow going, and the crowd was getting less orderly and more hostile. They were over an hour late for the pageant.

Meanwhile, President-elect Woodrow Wilson and his party arrived at the train station just a few blocks away. Only a modest crowd met them there. Apparently, Wilson asked, “Where are all the people?” The police answered, “watching the suffrage parade.”

By now the crowd numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Finally, District officials literally called in the cavalry.  The horseback troops standing by at Fort Myer met the head of the parade at 14th Street, and rode back up the parade route towards the Capitol, pushing the crowd back with their horses. They weren’t gentle, but they were effective. As the Washington Post reported, “Their horses were driven into the throngs and whirled and wheeled until hooting men and women were forced to retreat. A space was quickly cleared.” The later sections of the parade had more room, but no more support from the crowd. They were jeered, grabbed, spat upon, shouted at, and tripped. Many policemen did nothing to control the crowd, and some even joined in their taunts. Inevitably, injuries occurred. The Washington Post described two ambulances that “came and went constantly for six hours, always impeded and at times actually opposed, so that doctor and driver literally had to fight their way to give succor to the injured.” At least a hundred people were taken to the local emergency hospital.

Most of the marchers eventually made their way to Continental Hall. But instead of a triumphant capstone to a perfect day, the rally became a meeting of indignation and protest. Very little had gone according to plan. Helen Keller, who was scheduled to speak, was so frightened by the crowds at the grandstand that she could not participate. Every woman in the hall was some combination of filthy, battered, exhausted, unnerved, insulted, weepy, furious and freezing. Still in her academic robes, Alice Paul surveyed the room. And then she smiled. It was perfect.

—Rebecca Boggs Roberts

From Suffragists in Washington, D.C.: The 1913 Parade and the Fight for the Vote, by Rebecca Boggs Roberts. Copyright © 2017 by Rebecca Boggs Roberts. Published by The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina. Reprinted with permission of the author.


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