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Book Talk Looks Back on Galvanizing 1913 Suffrage Parade

By Susannah Buell

March 10, 2020


On March 4 the D.C. Bar continued its programming leading up to its 2020 Conference with a book talk by Rebecca Boggs Roberts, author of Suffragists in Washington, D.C., which details the 1913 parade in the nation’s capital that became a catalyst in the women’s suffrage movement.

Roberts told the audience the book idea emerged from her work at the Historic Congressional Cemetery, where she currently serves on its board of directors. Ten years ago, while researching a walking tour focused on the suffragists buried there, Roberts noticed that many of the obituaries mentioned the women’s participation in the parade — held the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration — as a high point in their public lives.

When the Women’s March took place on January 21, 2017, a day after President Trump’s inauguration, Roberts decided those “parallels were a little too strong to ignore, so [she] dashed off a book proposal.” Suffragists in Washington, D.C., was published the same year.

Roberts added that “the timing has been really lovely to be able to have this book out ahead of the centennial … as people are contributing to the scholarship around the suffrage movement.”

A Successful Disaster

The March 3, 1913, parade was carefully orchestrated by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, the newly appointed chairs of the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s Congressional Committee, to illustrate women's exclusion from the democratic process.

There had been celebratory parades on Pennsylvania Avenue before, Roberts said, but the idea of marching on Washington for a political cause was new. More than 8,000 marchers descended upon Washington for the first national suffrage parade.

Paul’s plan included floats, all-women marching bands, and a grand pageant on the Treasury Building steps — a tableau vivant depicting an allegory of Columbia (the female personification of the United States) summoning her virtues, represented by barefoot women in toga-style dresses. Riding a white horse, activist and lawyer Inez Milholland led the procession wearing a white dress, a cape, and a golden tiara. Women walked in delegations from their states; others with their professional or college alma mater groups. Still others marched in costumes from countries that already allowed women to vote.

The parade did not go as planned, however. The women were to start at the U.S. Capitol and proceed down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. But men who were in town for the inauguration filled the avenue, blocking the parade route. They tripped the women, spit on them, and hurled obscenities. Mounted officers called in from Fort Myer eventually forced enough space for the parade to get through, but what was planned as a 45-minute march took over three hours.

It was “not the triumphant capstone of a beautiful day,” Roberts said. However, Paul realized that the near-riot was actually a good thing, Roberts added.

Because of the drama, which many women reported back to their hometown newspapers, the event stayed in the news. The Washington Post’s front page the following day was split between its coverage of the march and Wilson’s arrival for his inauguration.

A Galvanizing Moment

In 1913 the suffrage movement was in trouble. It had lost momentum. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were dead, but even before their deaths there was already a split in the movement. Both women had opposed the 14th and 15th Amendments because they wanted women to be included with black men in voting rights. Others believed that women’s suffrage could wait a little longer.

Enter Alice Paul, who had attended graduate school in England and adopted the mindset and some tactics of that country’s more militant suffragists. The D.C. parade was Paul’s way to jumpstart the movement and be more aggressive, according to Roberts.

“The suffragist-activists in America never broke the law [before],” Roberts noted, but Paul’s leadership enticed more young women into the languishing cause.

Before Paul came on the scene, suffrage efforts had turned to a state-by-state strategy, but the march helped galvanize the movement for a federal amendment. The 19th Amendment was ratified seven years after the march.

On June 24 to 26, the D.C. Bar will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment at its 2020 Conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. Featured speakers include renowned presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin and former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr.