19th Amendment at 100: Woman Suffrage Comes to Washington

The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, but this landmark event was neither the beginning nor the end of the story for women and their struggle for the right to vote. Join us in 2020 as we commemorate this centennial year with 12 stories from our holdings for you to save, print, or share. March’s featured image shows the cover of the program for the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession, from the holdings of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.

The cover to the official 1913 program of the Woman Suffrage Procession shows a women on horseback, confidently riding towards the Capitol as a herald of a new era.

In reality, the march was a very different experience.

During the 1910s, suffragists staged large and dramatic parades to draw attention to their cause. On March 3, 1913—the day before Woodrow Wilson’s first Presidential inauguration—more than 5,000 suffragists gathered in Washington, DC, to march down Pennsylvania Avenue. One hundred women and children staged an allegorical tableau when they reached the Treasury Building.

The planning and execution of the parade had been the subject of debate among the suffragists themselves—should women of color be allowed to march with white women?

According to the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), all women and men were welcome to march in the 1913 suffrage parade. However, march organizer Alice Paul attempted to discourage black women from participating because she feared white women would not march alongside them.

Black suffragists refused to accept this discriminatory treatment. Ultimately, black women joined the procession, though they marched mostly in segregated units. 

Some women like Ida B. Wells-Barnett—journalist and co-founder of the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago—refused to comply when ordered to march at the back of the parade with other African Americans, and she marched with the Illinois delegation as she intended. The activist Mary Church Terrell, known for her fight against racial segregation, marched alongside the sisters of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, which had been recently founded at Howard University.

The famous suffragist and speaker Inez Milholland Boissevain did ride on horseback down Pennsylvania Avenue, followed by thousands of women, 9 bands, and twenty-four floats, but as the suffragists marched along Pennsylvania Avenue on March 3, 1913, they were met with crowds of unruly men blocking their paths and shouting derogatory remarks.

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

Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, marched with other female lawyers in the parade and recalled struggling to “walk four abreast . . . [in a space] no wider than a single car track.”

Ambulances struggled to reach those in need as the crowds sometimes deliberately blocked them, and over 100 women were taken to the hospital. By the end of the day, the cavalry had to be called in from Fort Myer to bring the crowd of spectators under control.

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.

The poor treatment of the marchers sparked immediate outrage.

View of the Woman Suffrage Parade between Ninth and Tenth Street, NW, 1913. (Publications of the U.S. Government, National Archives)

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.”

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.

In the end, outrage over the violence resulted in increased sympathy for woman suffrage.

This blog post was adapted from exhibit text written by curator Corinne Porter for Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote, and from an earlier blog post about the 1913 march by Jessie Kratz, the National Archives historian. A longer article about the march can be read here. The cover of the program comes from the holdings of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.

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