WASHINGTON – A record number of American women voted in last year’s presidential election. But a century ago this weekend,women were marching up Pennsylvania Avenue demanding the right to vote as thousands of men jeered and spit at them.
Some descendants of the women who refused to be silenced will gather Sunday to commemorate the march that thrust the women’s movement into the national spotlight.
Among the marchers will be Coline Jenkins,61,and her daughter,Elizabeth Jenkins-Sahlin,28,the fifth- and sixth-generation descendants of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Though the famed abolitionist and suffragist leader died before the 1913 march,her daughter,Harriot Stanton Blatch,was there lending years of experience to plan the march,though it was thought scandalous to do so at the time.
“The woman’s sphere was domestic,” Jenkins said. “It was considered promiscuous that a woman would speak in a public forum.”
On March 3,1913,she and Alice Paul,Inez Milholland,Lucy Burns and other suffragists from across the country participated in the first “Woman Suffrage Procession,” which was the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Wilson was surprised that few people greeted him when his train arrived during the march. That snub was part of Paul and Burns’ plan.
Between 5,000 and 8,000 women from every state and 23 countries marched in the parade. They began at the Capitol,following the inaugural parade route,ending at the Treasury Department,next to the White House.
Organized into parade units by state,then occupation,the marchers included scholars,nurses,librarians and teachers. Twenty-two African-American women from the historically black Howard University,who had just formed the the Delta Sigma Theta sorority,marched as their first activity.
The Thetas were asked to march in the back of the parade,said Gwendolyn Boyd,chairwoman of the centennial celebration march and president of the international sorority from 2000 to 2004. But the sorority members were able to integrate themselves throughout the procession. Ida B. Wells-Barnett,the Chicago journalist and anti-lynching advocate,famously refused to march in the back of the parade,much to the chagrin of Alice Paul,who was afraid of losing the support of Southern women if she allowed the parade to be integrated. Wells waited on the street before joining the contingent of journalists as they passed by.
A crowd of nearly half a million men – the city’s population of 331,000 had swelled for the inauguration – jeered at the women and pelted them with rocks and broken bottles,injuring more than 300 women and hospitalizing 100.
“The police were told to just stand back,” said Linda Denny,a member of the Suffrage Centennial Planning Committee and board member of the National Women’s History Museum. “Women had to walk single file through the immense crowds.”
Yet no one came to help.
Ambulances that were called in had a difficult time getting to the injured because of the crowd,Denny said. Because of the scale of the disruption,troops on horseback from Fort Myers were called in,but found it nearly impossible to restore order because of the sheer number of people.
Inspired by parade leader Inez Milholland,who shone in a white dress atop a white horse,the women marched on,determined to win what had been granted to men with the signing of the Constitution.
Milholland died three years later,after collapsing on a stage where she was protesting Wilson’s refusal to listen to “dumb women.”
“Her legacy is crucial,” said John Marlin,Milholland’s great-nephew and chief economist for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “She was the martyr of that movement.”
Milholland’s legacy inspired more than 2,000 women to protest daily at the White House from 1917 to 1919.
Known as the “Silent Sentinels,” these women held up banners with sayings such as “Democracy should begin at home,” referring to World War I. Women who participated in the protests were arrested for obstructing the sidewalks and imprisoned without trial. In jail,the women went on hunger strikes,but were force-fed with tubes,placed in solitary confinement and hit,beaten and kicked by the guardsmen.
The press began to cover the plight of the suffragists,and public opinion shifted. Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in May 1919. It was ratified in August 1920.
Forty years later,the direct actions and nonviolent methods employed by these women would be used by Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the Civil Rights movement.
Denny describes going through her daughter’s new high-school history textbook almost 20 years ago to discover four pictures and one paragraph about the decades-long movement for women’s rights,including a sentence announcing that women were given the right to vote in 1920.
“Women were anything but ‘given’ the right to vote,” Denny said. “It was a true battle.”
Jenkins-Sahlin,a D.C. resident who works for a social service agency,said said women’s rights activists still have work to do.
“The women’s rights movement was the greatest,bloodless revolution,and does continue in many ways,” she said. “This is a time to look back on our history proudly to see how far we’ve come and to also think about what we want for future generations. What it is that we want to be remembered for?”
Reach Reporter Jess Miller at [email protected] or 202-326-9871. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.