One hundred years ago today, over 5,000 women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. for universal women’s suffrage. Marching on March 3, 1913, one day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, women demanded the right to vote. The Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913 was the first major national effort calling for a constitutional amendment.
It was organized by Alice Paul, who was born in New Jersey and earned an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. She traveled to England and became involved with the suffrage movement. Upon her return to the United States she joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The Washington parade was her first duty as part of the suffrage association. Paul later commented on why the parade was held the day before Wilson’s inauguration and how it all came about.
That was the only day you could have it if you were trying to impress the new President. The marchers came from all over the country at their own expense. We just sent letters everywhere, to every name we could find. And then we had a hospitality committee headed by Mrs. Harvey Wiley, the wife of the man who put through the first pure-food law in America. Mrs. Wiley canvassed all her friends in Washington and came up with a tremendous list of people who were willing to entertain the visiting marchers for a day or two. I mention these names to show what a wonderful group of people we had on our little committee.
When they went to obtain their police permit for the parade, the police tried to have the women march on Sixteenth Street, past the embassies instead. After the police chief was visited by a committee member’s mother, who happened to be the wife of a congressman, the group obtained authorization to use Pennsylvania Avenue.
On Monday, March 3rd, more than 5,000 marchers descended on Washington D.C. for the parade. The parade included nine bands, four mounted brigades, 20 floats, and an allegorical performance near the Treasury Building. The marchers were separated into different categories. Leading the parade, wearing a crown and long white cape on top a white horse, was labor lawyer Inez Milholland. Women from countries that had already enfranchised women were first, along with officers in the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The “Pioneers”, women who have been working on suffrage for decades, came after. Celebration of working women followed the Pioneers section and included nurses, farmers, homemakers, doctors, college women and more. Other sections included the National Association of Colored Women, individual state delegations and male supporters.
The parade began late. There was a very large turnout, in part because many tourists came to see the inauguration the next day. The association was worried that the police were going to underestimate the parade’s audience and not make preparations. Committee member Mrs. John Rogers went to see her brother-in-law the night before about crowd issues. He just happened to be Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War. Secretary Stimson promised to send over the cavalry from Fort Myer if trouble should arise.
The parade appeared to have a good start; however Pennsylvania Avenue soon became chocked with thousands of spectators. At the same time a few blocks away, president-elect Wilson arrived at the railway station to very little fanfare. When they asked where everyone was, they were told everyone was “watching the suffrage parade.”
Mostly men, the spectators began to jostle and hurl insults at the parade members. With massive crowds, the parade could barely get past. Some women were tripped and assaulted while the police did little to stop it. One policeman even told some women that they should have stayed home where they belonged. Over one hundred marchers were hospitalized due to the injuries they received from the crowds.
It took six hours to go from the Capitol to Constitution Hall. Finally, Secretary Stimson was called and quickly sent over the troops to clear the way for the parade. It was reported that Helen Keller “was so exhausted and unnerved by the experience in attempting to reach a grandstand . . . that she was unable to speak later at Continental hall [sic].” The majority of the women finished the parade and the event continued as scheduled.
There was much furor over the mistreatment of the marchers and it became a major news story. It led to congressional hearings with more than 150 witnesses telling of their experiences and resulted in the firing of D.C.’s superintendent of police. While suffragists around the country were up in arms about the hostile crowds against the peaceful parade goers, Alice Paul remembers it differently in a 1974 interview.
The principal investigation was launched at the request of our women delegates from Washington, which was a suffrage state. These women were so indignant about the remarks from the crowd. And I remember that Congressman Kent was very aroused at the things that were shouted at his daughter, Elizabeth, who was riding on the California float, and he was among the first in Congress to demand an investigation into why the police hadn’t been better prepared. As I said, the police just didn’t take our little procession seriously. I don’t think it was anything intentional. We didn’t testify against the police, because we felt it was just a miscalculation on their part.
Whether it was a “miscalculation” or blatant indifference by the police, the Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913 was just the start of using public protests as a tool to achieve universal rights. It would take another seven years, and many pickets and parades later, for Congress to pass the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 giving women the right to vote.
Sheridan Harvey, “Marching for the Vote: Remembering the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913”, American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women’s History and Culture in the United States, 2001.
“Battle for Suffrage“, American Experience, PBS.
Robert S. Gallagher, “I was Arrested, Of Course…“, American Heritage, Vol. 25, Iss. 2 (February 1974).