On March 3, 1913, protesters parted for the woman in white: dressed in a flowing cape and sitting astride a white horse, the activist Inez Milholland was hard to miss.
She was riding at the helm of the Women’s Suffrage Parade- the first mass protest for a woman’s right to vote on a national scale. After months of strategic planning and controversy, thousands of women gathered in Washington D.C. Here, they called for a constitutional amendment granting them the right to vote.
By 1913, women’s rights activists had been campaigning for decades. As a disenfranchised group, women had no voice in the laws that affected their– or anyone else’s– lives. However, they were struggling to secure broader support for political equality. They’d achieved no major victories since 1896, when Utah and Idaho enfranchised women. That brought the total number of states which recognized a women’s right to vote to four.
A new, media-savvy spirit arrived in the form of Alice Paul. She was inspired by the British suffragettes, who went on hunger strikes and endured imprisonment in the early 1900s. Rather than conduct costly campaigns on a state-by-state basis, Paul sought the long-lasting impact of a constitutional amendment, which would protect women’s voting rights nationwide.
As a member of the National American Women Suffrage Association, Paul proposed a massive pageant to whip up support and rejuvenate the movement. Washington authorities initially rejected her plan- and then tried to relegate the march to side streets. But Paul got those decisions overturned and confirmed a parade for the day before the presidential inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. This would maximize media coverage and grab the attention of the crowds who would be in town.
However, in planning the parade, Paul mainly focused on appealing to white women from all backgrounds, including those who were racist. She actively discouraged African American activists and organizations from participating- and stated that those who did so should march in the back.
But black women would not be made invisible in a national movement they helped shape. On the day of the march, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a ground-breaking investigative journalist and anti-lynching advocate, refused to move to the back and proudly marched under the Illinois banner. The co-founder of the NAACP, Mary Church Terrell, joined the parade with the 22 founders of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, an organization created by female students from Howard University. In these ways and more, black women persevered despite deep hostility from white women in the movement, and at great political and physical risk.
On the day of the parade, suffragists assembled to create a powerful exhibition. The surging sections of the procession included international suffragists, artists, performers and business-owners. Floats came in the form of golden chariots; an enormous Liberty Bell; and a map of enfranchised countries. On the steps of the Treasury Building, performers acted out the historical achievements of women to a live orchestra.
The marchers carried on even as a mob blocked the route, hurling insults and spitting at women, tossing cigars, and physically assaulting participants. The police did not intervene, and in the end, over 100 women were hospitalized.
Their mistreatment, widely reported throughout the country, catapulted the parade into the public eye— and garnered suffragists greater sympathy. National newspapers lambasted the police, and Congressional hearings investigated their actions during the parade. After the protest, the "Women’s Journal" declared, “Washington has been disgraced. Equal suffrage has scored a great victory."
In this way, the march initiated a surge of support for women’s voting rights that endured in the coming years. Suffragists kept up steady pressure on their representatives, attended rallies, and petitioned the White House.
Inez Milholland, the woman on the white horse, campaigned constantly throughout the United States, despite suffering from chronic health problems. She did not live to see her efforts come to fruition. In 1916, she collapsed while giving a suffrage speech and died soon after. According to popular reports, her last words were, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”
Though full voting inclusion would take decades, in 1920, Congress ratified the 19th amendment, finally granting women the right to vote.