The Washington suffrage march: Premiering a national strategy


America needed to see suffrage.

Alice Paul had decided that this was what the women’s suffrage movement needed. Americans — particularly journalists — needed a picture of suffrage implanted in their heads. She decided to get it with an audacious, radical and stunning idea: a suffrage parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., on the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson as president.

The nation, the world even, would pay attention.

The spectacle of such a parade at such a time would vault the issue of women’s suffrage onto the national political as nothing else could. Maybe it would even spur the new president and Congress to take up the issue and add an amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote.

That was a long shot. But, at the very least, people would “see” suffrage and would begin to understand that the suffragists were playing a new ballgame.

In that, Paul succeeded beyond her very vivid imagination.

***

The idea of a parade was, in some ways, a compromise (Lunardini, 1986).

Paul, who had already gathered a measure of fame by being an American jailed in the suffrage battles in Great Britain, had come to the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1912 ready to lead a charge for a Constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. What she and Lucy Burns, someone she had met in England who was also involved in the suffrage demonstrations there, found was an organization that wanted little to do with any new ideas and nothing to do with anything that smacked of “militancy.”

Paul and Burns had made a pitch to take over the NAWSA’s Congressional Committee, which officially was charged with lobbying for the amendment, and begin putting pressure on the in-coming Wilson administration to support their cause. NAWSA’s leaders were committed to their state-by-state plan and wanted no part of a federal effort. Paul and Burns were dismissed almost immediately.

They then appealed to Jane Addams, whose reputation as a suffrage supporter was unassailable and whose accomplishments in Chicago far outshown most of the suffrage leaders. Addams agreed to support them on one condition. Rather than asking for NAWSA to back a new political strategy, Paul and Burns should simply ask to head the Congressional Committee and plan a parade. For the two young women, that was enough. With Addams’ backing, they got their committee and the backing, insubstantial as it was, of the association.

Yes, they were told, they could plan a parade. No, they couldn’t have any money. They would have to raise it themselves.

That they did.

Even before money, they needed a committee of people willing to devote themselves quickly and wholly to the job at hand. Burns contacted Crystal Eastman, a committed feminist whom she had known at Vassar. They also recruited Mary Ritter Beard, a member of the Woman Suffrage Party of New York, and Dora Kelly Lewis, a member of Philadelphia’s social elite who five years hence would find herself near death in prison because of her suffragist activities. Each of these women had contacts and resources, and they would need to exploit them all. It was January 1913. They had only two months.

***

Paul’s idea for a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue on the day before Wilson’s inauguration was undoubtedly brilliant, but it would not have come off if there had not been a vast reservoir of potential support for it. All over the country, women were getting educated and getting jobs. They were increasingly involved in public life, but movement toward getting the vote had stagnated.

The National American Woman Suffrage Association provided little hope and less inspiration. NAWSA was committed to winning suffrage state by state, and their successes had been sparse. NAWSA’s state organization were entrenched and insular, often devoting more time to infighting than to fighting for suffrage.

The biggest problem with NAWSA was that it did not want to offend or upset anyone, particularly politicians. Getting the vote, NAWSA seemed to argue, would not really change anything or anyone. It was just the right thing to do. The argument also carried the stricture that women would not step outside the bounds of appropriate behavior.

To many women, and more than a few men, these were lame arguments that produced lame results. They were ready for something different.

Alice Paul’s idea of a parade gave them something different.

***

The response to the Congressional Committee’s call for participants and support was almost overwhelming. Women from all over the country were waiting for a chance to express themselves definitely and forcefully. They were tired and frustrated with the infighting of NAWSA and its policy of not making waves, not doing anything that would take away from the image of femininity imposed upon them. They wanted to show how they felt.

They wanted to march. And march they did.





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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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