The event was organized by Alice Paul, who was born in New Jersey and earned an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. She traveled to England and became involved with the suffrage movement. Upon her return to the United States she joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The Washington parade was her first duty as part of the suffrage association.
The parade included nine bands, four mounted brigades, 20 floats, and an allegorical performance near the Treasury Building. The marchers were separated into different categories. Leading the parade, wearing a crown and long white cape on top a white horse, was labor lawyer Inez Milholland. Women from countries that had already enfranchised women were first, along with officers in the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
The “Pioneers”, women who have been working on suffrage for decades, came after. Celebration of working women followed the Pioneers section and included nurses, farmers, homemakers, doctors, college women and more. Other sections included the National Association of Colored Women, individual state delegations and male supporters.
The parade began late. There was a very large turnout, in part because many tourists came to see the inauguration the next day. The association was worried that the police were going to underestimate the parade’s audience and not make preparations. Committee member Mrs. John Rogers went to see her brother-in-law the night before about crowd issues. He just happened to be Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War. Secretary Stimson promised to send over the cavalry from Fort Myer if trouble should arise.
The parade appeared to have a good start; however Pennsylvania Avenue soon became choked with thousands of spectators. At the same time a few blocks away, president-elect Wilson arrived at the railway station to very little fanfare. When they asked where everyone was, they were told everyone was “watching the suffrage parade.”
Mostly men, the spectators began to jostle and hurl insults at the parade members. With massive crowds, the parade could barely get past. Some women were tripped and assaulted while the police did little to stop it. One policeman even told some women that they should have stayed home where they belonged. Over one hundred marchers were hospitalized due to the injuries they received from the crowds.
It took six hours to go from the Capitol to Constitution Hall. Finally, Secretary Stimson was called and quickly sent over the troops to clear the way for the parade. It was reported that Helen Keller “was so exhausted and unnerved by the experience in attempting to reach a grandstand…that she was unable to speak later at Continental hall [sic].” The majority of the women finished the parade and the event continued as scheduled.
The mistreatment of the marchers by the crowd and the police caused a great furor. Alice Paul shaped the public response after the parade, portraying the incident as symbolic of systemic government mistreatment of women, stemming from their lack of a voice and political influence through the vote. She claimed the incident showed that the government’s role in women’s lives had broken down, and that it was incapable of even providing women with physical safety.
Journalist Nellie Bly, who had participated in the march, headlined her article “Suffragists are Men’s Superiors”. Senate hearings, held by a subcommittee of the Committee on the District of Columbia, started on March 6, only three days after the march, and lasted until March 17, with the result that the District’s superintendent of police was replaced. NAWSA praised the parade and Paul’s work on it, saying “the whole movement in the country has been wonderfully furthered by the series of important events which have taken place in Washington, beginning with the great parade the day before the inauguration of the president”.
(Photo credit: Library of Congress).