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Official program—Woman suffrage procession, Washington, D.C. March 3, 1913
March 3, 1913, was a major milestone in the battle for women in the United States to achieve national suffrage. Over 8,000 women and male supporters marched through the streets of Washington, D.C., on the day before President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. Though attacked by viewers, and women who marched suffered injury, the parade route was completed by most of the marchers and brought national attention to the suffrage movement.

“There would be nothing like this happen if you would stay at home.”

[...] The procession began late, but all went well for the first few blocks . Soon, however, the crowds, mostly men in town for the following day's inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, surged into the street making it almost impossible for the marchers to pass. Occasionally only a single file could move forward. Women were jeered, tripped, grabbed, shoved, and many heard “indecent epithets” and “barnyard conversation.” Instead of protecting the parade, the police “seemed to enjoy all the ribald jokes and laughter and part participated in them.” One policeman explained that they should stay at home where they belonged. The men in the procession heard shouts of “Henpecko” and “Where are your skirts?” As one witness explained, “There was a sort of spirit of levity connected with the crowd. They did not regard the affair very seriously.”

But to the women, the event was very serious. 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 ].” Two ambulances “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” . One hundred marchers were taken to the local Emergency Hospital. Before the afternoon was over, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, responding to a request from the chief of police, authorized the use of a troop of cavalry from nearby Fort Myer to help control the crowd.

Though in 1869 the Wyoming territory constitution granted women the right to vote and to hold public office, and other states had slowly moved forward, it would be seven more years after 1913 before the majority population of the U.S.—women—would be granted the franchise.

It is fitting that we not only explore this history during Women's History Month, but that we take heed of the fact that though victories may have been won in the past, this is no time to rest on laurels, since efforts have been under way to erode the vote for many women—particularly women of color and the elderly—and just as suffragists had to fight to win the vote, we have to fight to keep the rights we have won and expand them.

Follow me below the fold to explore this history and these thoughts in more detail.

Crowds at 15th & Penna. Ave. before the Suffragette Parade, March 3, 1913
The nation's capitol has, over the years, seen many marches. Ofttimes when we refer to "the March on Washington," we refer to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which helped get the civil rights act of 1964 and the voting rights act of 1965 passed.

But rarely has the women's march in 1913 been woven into the fabric of the civil rights movement. That is beginning to change as women's studies scholars explore more of checkered history of women who made up the suffrage movement, and their divisions around the issue of race.  

There are many names that stand out as sheroes of that day, and of the movement.

Inez Milholland Boissevain, wearing white cape, seated on white horse at the National American Woman Suffrage Association parade, March 3, 1913, Washington, D.C.
Inez Milholland Boissevain, wearing white cape, seated on white horse at the National American Woman Suffrage Association parade, March 3, 1913, Washington, D.C.
Who can forget the image of Inez Milholland Boissevain, mounted on her white horse, who led the parade.
In her short life Milholland shared with many of her fellow marchers a commitment to social reform. She joined organizations striving to improve the working conditions of children and the lives of African Americans. She was also a strong supporter of the shirtwaist and laundry workers. Three years after the parade, she collapsed and died at age thirty during a western suffrage lecture tour.
Ida Wells Barnett
One of the key women who stands out for me is Ida Wells-Barnett.

Though she is mostly remembered for her unflinching and fearless crusading against lynching, Wells-Barnett, along with other black women of her time like Mary Church Terrell, organized black women to fight for suffrage.

At the time of the march, the white female organizers had decided to permit black women to march at the back of the parade.

Black Women Sent to the Back of the March

In the Southern states, opposition to woman suffrage was intensified as legislators feared that granting women the vote would add even more black voters to the voting rolls. So, the parade organizers reasoned, a compromise had to be struck: African American women could march in the suffrage parade, but in order to prevent raising even more opposition in the South, they would have to march at the back of the march. The votes of Southern legislators, in Congress and in the state houses, were possibly at stake, the organizers reasoned.

Mary Terrell accepted the decision. But Ida Wells-Barnett did not. She tried to get the white Illinois delegation to support her opposition of this segregation, but found few supporters. The Alpha Suffrage Club women either marched in the back, or, as did Ida Wells-Barnett herself, decided not to march in the parade at all.

Ida Wells-Barnett marching with Illinois delegation, 1913
But, as the parade progressed, Wells-Barnett emerged from the crowd and joined the (white) Illinois delegation, marching between two white supporters. She refused to comply with the segregation.
For me, this history is key, simply because too often the racial divisions in the movement have been downplayed, or overlooked. This should be a lesson for today's feminists.

As women face increasingly hostile challenges to hard-won rights, in the workplace or around their reproductive rights, it is important that the erosion of hard-won voting rights be battled vigorously.

Lest we forget when bigots like Justice Scalia foam at the mouth about the voting rights act as a “perpetuation of racial entitlement,” that half of those people protected by that voting rights act are women. Sure, it does not mention gender. Last time I looked, I'm black and female. The majority of blacks in the U.S. still live in areas regulated under that legislation.  

So this is a feminist issue.  

In honor of women who won the right to vote—for all women, now is the time for feminists to come to the defense of women (and men) who may lose it.


Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Mar 03, 2013 at 05:45 PM PST.

Also republished by Black Kos community, Barriers and Bridges, RaceGender DiscrimiNATION, I Vote for Democrats, J Town, and LatinoKos.

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