Joining the parade

September 14, 2012 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: news.

A suffrage parade in New York City, circa 1913

During the first decade of the 20th century, for a middle-class woman to walk out onto the street alone was unusual, to use a mild and neutral term. “Scandalous” would probably be more appropriate in many situations.

Edwardian propriety dictated that women in public should be accompanied by someone, preferably a man. Women should maintain their modesty, and in polite society, that modesty could be protected by best by a man or older woman. Certainly, these “rules” were often broken, but to break the rules invited aspersions on one’s reputation.

You had to be careful, if you were a woman. You couldn’t just go dashing out into the street by yourself.

That’s one of the reasons why the suffrage parade was so extraordinary.

To be sure, the women who marched in those parades weren’t alone, but they were exposing themselves to the public in ways not normally accepted and inviting ridicule and worse. “Suffrage women’s very presence in the city streets decisively challenged traditional notions of femininity and subsequent restrictions on women’s conduct.” (Borda, 2002, below)

The first such parade was mounted by British suffragists in February 1907. It became known as the Mud March because of the gray and damp conditions of the day and the fact that the long skirts of the marchers inevitably attracted the dirt of the London streets and sidewalks. The marchers, some 3,000 of them, also attracted hecklers and catcalls along the way.

The Mud March is the described in some detail in Lisa Tickner’s The Spectacle of Women (74-80), and she includes this excerpt from the Manchester Guardian sympathetically speculating on what it must have been like for the women in the demonstration:

“Nobody can suppose that most of the women who took part . . . can have done so for sport or for the pleasure of the thing . . . It requires some courage for a woman to step out of her drawing room into the street to take her place in a mixed throng for a cause probably distasteful to many of her acquaintances, and to see herself pilloried in the newspapers next morning by name as one of the ‘Suffragettes’. That old ladies and delicate ones, and timid ones to boot, should have done this quite simply and bravely argues at least a good deal of quiet convictions and a resolution not likely to be easily broken.”


Jennifer L. Borda, The Woman Suffrage Parades of 1910-1913: Possibilities and Limitations of an Early Feminist Rhetorical Strategy. Western Journal of Communication, Vol. 66, 2002

[QUOTED MATERIAL] IN A 1912 STATEMENT written for the New York Tribune, Harriot Stanton Blatch explained why woman suffragists organized annual parades. “Men and women,” she wrote, “are moved by seeing marching groups of people and by hearing music far more than by listening to the most careful argument” (Blatch “Why” 1). Blatch understood the rhetorical force of the parade as a vehicle for social change. Parades as celebratory performance had been a distinct feature of American civic ceremony since the early days of the republic (Ryan; Newman; Davis). Cognizant of the procession’s significance in American culture, Blatch envisioned the parade as an opportunity to take suffrage politics more boldly into public spaces.

[QUOTED MATERIAL]The parades of the woman suffrage movement appropriated this public expression of solidarity–a symbolic form traditionally employed by men to proclaim their collective agency–as a conscious transgression of the rules of social order. Suffrage women’s very presence in the city streets decisively challenged traditional notions of femininity and subsequent restrictions on women’s conduct. These large-scale demonstrations, held between 1910 and 1913, exhibited women’s collective mobilization while visually symbolizing woman suffragists’ contestation of their prescribed societal roles. The spectacle of the annual suffrage parade was thus executed as an act of public celebration, an expression of social protest, and a demonstration of women’s capacity to participate in popular political culture. Consequently, in the last decade of women’s long fight for the right to vote, a new political strategy and, more precisely, a method of tactical resistance, was established within the movement. Emphasis added.


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