Woodrow Wilson had won the presidency, and his inauguration was planned for March 4th, 1913. Suffragists under the leadership of Alice Paul--and with the endorsement of the National American Woman Suffrage Association--planned a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue on March 3rd to bring greater attention to women's rights.
As it turned out, this parade and events that followed marked the beginning of the final push for suffrage.
Alice Paul planned her event skillfully. She garnered permission to use the inaugural viewing stands for VIPs. She had pomp and ceremony with the beautiful and talented female attorney Inez Miholland dressed in flowing white robes and gold crown, mounted on a white horse followed by floats, chariots, bands, mounted groups and thousands marching on foot. Paul even planned for the inclusion of black suffragists who were prepared to march with their white sisters.
More Memorable Than Planned
For all Paul's planning, however, events quickly went awry.
Although black suffragists were invited to march, they were encouraged to stay to the rear--so as not to upset Southern suffragists. Not surprisingly, that didn't sit well with many Black women. The inimitable Black suffrage leader Ida B. Wells planned to march with her Illinois delegation. She waited on the sidelines until the Illinois women passed, then jumped in to the middle of the parade to join them.
Ida B. Wells' actions (which were supported by her Illinois friends) were the least of anyone's problems. As the parade made it's way up Pennsylvania Avenue, the march came to a standstill. The mob of spectators began getting rowdy and tried to stop the marchers. Grand Marshal Jan Burleson described the pushing, jeering crowd as a "horrible, howling mob," and it took cavalry troops coming to the rescue and pushing the bystanders back to allow the parade to continue.
The parade was to reach its glorious conclusion on the steps of the Treasury building then retire to Continental Hall in victory. Instead, a phalanx of determined but cold, bedraggled, tired and dirty women (some in tears) arrived at the destination.
And yet, the parade was a success. Journalists would talk about the near-riot suffrage event for weeks, and Alice Paul saw a strategy of success for pushing suffrage over the finish line. It would still take seven years before ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, but up until 1913, women had been fighting for more than 50 years without much success on the national level. The Seneca Falls Convention, after all, was in 1848!
Suffragists Adopt New Tactics
Alice Paul decided that up until that point the suffrage movement in the United States had been too gentle and passive. Women needed to be more aggressive and, more importantly, more visible.
Also, since during initial meetings with the women, President Wilson made it clear that his domestic agenda did not include suffrage. Wilson claimed he was personally moved by their cause but as president he was more focused on banking and business policies.
So Alice Paul and her followers went on the offense. Groups, including the members of the General Federation of Women's Clubs and the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage (later the National Women's Party), met with Wilson at every opportunity. But with no progress, they needed to up the ante. Starting in January 1917, the Silent Sentinels started picketing the White House in an effort to confront the President and urge him to take up their cause.
Initially, the picketers were fined, but as their gatherings became more disruptive, the authorities took more severe action and started arresting suffragists and sending them to the Occoquan Workhouse. At one point an incarcerated Paul and 33 other suffragists staged a hunger strike over the conditions. The guards responded by brutally force-feeding them using tubes.
Picketing Wins the Heart and Mind of the President
When word of the November 14 "Night of Terror" and the brutal treatment of the women reached Wilson, the President began to change his stance. First the women were pardoned, then Wilson began to include mention of women's rights in his speeches.
At this time, America also was engaged in war. Although the women continued to campaign for their rights, they remained patriotic and helped with the war effort in any way they could.
As Wilson said in December 1917, "The least tribute we can pay them is to make them the equals of men in political rights as they have proved themselves their equals in every field of practical work they have entered, whether for themselves or for their country." Then in January 1918, he publicly came out in support of a constitutional amendment for women's suffrage.
The suffrage struggle continued for another two years. In spite of Wilson's support, an initial suffrage amendment failed to pass in the Senate. But on May 21, 1919 the Susan B. Anthony Amendment passed both the House and the Senate, and by August 1920 ratified by the required three-fourths of states (36 states).
With the Nineteenth Amendment, Women had the vote although many racial minorities had to wait years before they could go to the polls.
Did Alice Paul's Strategy Really Turn the Tables?
When we look back at the full history of suffrage, the many years that the struggle for women's rights went on, the various organizations and leaders involved and their strategies to get results, it's easy to believe that Alice Paul's aggressive approach worked.
And without doubt it didn't hurt. As the women became more aggressive, they increasingly tended to get hurt and mistreated, and that was in the news. What's more men in the early 20th century weren't comfortable seeing women battered, bruised and jailed.
Still, Alice Paul's approach wasn't the only strategy that was making headway. Carrie Chapman Catt noticed that many of the Western territories and states were giving women the vote. When she took over leadership of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1900, she proposed her "Winning Plan." Her strategy was to focus on winning suffrage state by state. And, in fact, that's what happened. Territories, including Wyoming, Utah, Washington and Montana, gave women the vote. States followed, including Colorado, Idaho, California, Arizona, Kansas and Oregon.
By the time Alice Paul was making very noticeable waves in Washington, DC, women's suffrage had gained ground in many states. In fact, on April 2, 1917, Montana's Jeannette Rankin was sworn in as the first female Representative.
Although it shouldn't have been, suffrage was, in fact, a long, drawn-out battle. It took the strength, organizational skills, ideas, perseverance and strategies of many women. We thank them all.
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