DC at Night

DC at Night

Saturday, March 2, 2013

We Are Women, Hear Us Roar

In March 1913, 5,000 women, some riding snow-white steeds but most walking, paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue to demand the right of American women to vote. Today, 100 years later, families and females of all ages flocked to the National Museum of American History to learn about that historic campaign and offer their children a chance to practice their own advocacy.

The march gets off to a good start
Artifacts from The National Woman Suffrage Parade, the first ever civil rights parade to use the nation’s capital as a backdrop, formed the focus for the day's experiences. On view were cloaks, sashes, and hats worn during the parade; copies of the day's official program; actual letters and newspaper articles about the historic event; and slogans, buttons, and banners calling attention to the cause.

In 1913, the battle for the vote was nothing new for women's rights advocates of the time. The 1st proposal to amend the Constitution and give women the right to vote was submitted to Congress in 1878. The idea for the parade is credited to activist Alice Paul, who, after spending time in England, became convinced that more in-your-face type campaigns were needed to force the issue.

To make sure the event received the maximum publicity, the parade was scheduled for March 3, one day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. Although neither the victorious Democrats or the Republicans had included female voting as part of their campaign platform, Paul and others were convinced that a massive march would create more political support for their cause.

Inez Milholland
Activist and lawyer Inez Milholland, then 27 years old, led the parade wearing a crown and a long white cape while riding atop a large white horse named "Gray Dawn." She was joined in the march by such luminaries as Helen Keller, Ida Wells, and Nellie Bly.

The 1st float in the parade carried a giant sign proclaiming "We Demand an Amendment to the Constitution of the United States Enfranchising the Women of This Country." Another float distinguished between the 9 states of light (those states at the time that allowed women to vote) and the 39 states of darkness which denied that right.

To further publicize their cause, "newsies" costumed in purple robes with green and white sashes walked along the parade route, selling a special edition of the Woman's Journal which they pulled from bags bearing the slogan Vote for Women in large green and purple letters.

The male crowd becomes unruly
Although the parade was carefully planned and scripted, organizers were caught by surprise by the outburst of violence their march caused. After a good beginning, the marchers encountered huge crowds, mostly male, on the street that should have been cleared for the parade. The women were jeered and harassed while attempting to squeeze by the scoffing crowds, and the police were of little help, many of them even participating in the attack. More than 200 people ended up being treated for injuries at local hospitals. Despite the harassment, most of the marchers finished the parade and viewed an allegorical tableau presented near the Treasury Building. 

The mistreatment of the marchers by the crowd and the police caused a national furor and kept the voting issue in the news for weeks. However, it would be 7 more years before victory was achieved with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

This marcher approves
After learning about the parade and the history surrounding it, youngsters were encouraged to visit several stations where they could create items for their own social justice campaigns.  Two of the stations allowed young activists to create posters calling attention to issues they believe need to be addressed.  Another allowed them to post their thoughts about the greatest women living today. Visitors could hear DC singers perform songs associated with the early 20th Century voting battle. Experts in period costumes were also on hand to talk about the issues of the time with those interested.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you want to see and learn more about the Suffrage Parade, the museum is planning to keep the 30-foot long showcase that recreates the mood of the parade and illustrates its impact on display at least through this spring.

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