Suffrage and suffering at the 1913 March

Today’s blog post comes from Jessie Kratz, archives specialist in the Center for Legislative Archives.

As woman suffrage advocates marched along Pennsylvania Avenue on March 3, 1913, they were met with crowds of unruly men blocking their paths and shouting derogatory remarks.

While making preparations for the parade, organizers had made repeated attempts to secure police protection—they even contacted the Secretary of War seeking assistance from the U.S. military. Richard H. Sylvester, Chief of DC Police, had assured organizers that he could manage the situation without the military, but he ultimately failed to control the crowd.

Exhibit No. 36, View of the Woman Suffrage Parade from the Willard Hotel, Washington DC, from the Hearings before the Subcommittee of the Committee of the District of Columbia of the United States Senate, pursuant to S. Res 499, March 4, 1913, 63rd Congress (Y4.D63/2:W84); RG 287, National Archives

The poor treatment of the marchers sparked immediate outrage.

The day after the parade, the Senate passed a resolution authorizing the Committee on the District of Columbia to investigate the police’s handling of the incident. The committee collected evidence and heard from over 100 witnesses, including parade organizer and suffragist Alice Paul; Julia Lathrop, chief of the Children’s Bureau; parade attendees from around the country; and witnesses who spoke on behalf of the Metropolitan Police.

The women testified about their experiences—some noted the lack of police or their indifference and applauded the Boy Scouts for being more effective than the police. Others described drunken men along the parade route hooting and jeering at them, blocking their path, and making insulting remarks (one young girl was called a “Georgia Peach”—an indignity at the time).

A resolution from the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage in King’s County noted that the women in the parade, “many of whom were among the finest intellectual leaders of their sex, were . . . subject to insult, ribaldry, and personal abuse.”

Resolution of the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage of King’s County, New York, calling on Congress to investigate the woman suffrage parade, April 14, 1913 (HR 63A-H4.4); Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives

Congress collected and published an immense amount of material—the hearings and report are available in Federal Government Depository Libraries nationwide. Some of the report can be read online.

Congress’s report concluded that the parade route was not adequately cleared or protected and that the commissioners of the District of Columbia should have requested that Congress give them authority to close the parade route. The committee recommended legislation giving the commissioners full authority to stop all traffic and travel on any street permitted for a parade. While the report did not sanction the DC police department, it prompted a lengthy investigation that eventually led to Sylvester’s removal in 1915.















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