By Ed Caudill
The photographs in this book are an extraordinary record of an extraordinary time in the growth of American democracy. When the suffrage parade took place in 1913, the movement was 65 years old. It would take another seven years of agitation, arrests and headlines before passage of the 19th Amendment. These pictures depict a bit of historical realism — history that is messy, a mixture of heroes and knaves, a spectacle in the cause of great moral issue, an event that was little more than press pandering and mob appeal set to the pursuit of a righteous goal. The mob disrupted the event, but helped nurture the cause by making the parade even more newsworthy than it would have been as an orderly, sparsely attended walk through cold streets.
The early 20th century was an exciting time in American history, a little too much so for some people, especially those rigidly defending traditions secular and sacred. Change coursed through society, impelled marchers, threatened the entrenched, and heralded promise for the downtrodden. It was an era of reform. The economy was shifting from the family farm to the city and industry. Progressives rode the currents of change and set themselves against the abuses of the Gilded Age and the Robber Barons. The reformers’ wildly ambitious goals included government regulation, broader democracy, and public service. Perhaps the biggest idea of all was that government had some responsibility for the welfare of its citizenry, all of them, not just a monied few who had been served so well during the Gilded Age. Progressives pushed for government responsibility for infrastructure, education, health, workplace safety, and even the setting aside vast tracts of land for conservation instead of exploitation. Those in the suffrage movement understood the new expectations of and role for government, in particular the federal government.
The assault on tradition often met with resistance. The women who challenged convention provoked similar anxiety. The suffrage movement was only one manifestation of a new, emerging culture. The changing role of women in the industrial economy was highlighted during World War I, when the number of women in the workforce surged. Public education was growing, for men and women, providing new opportunities and roles for all. New modes of communication were eroding old barriers, physical and intellectual, to new ideas. Two machines of the new era of communications, the telephone and the typewriter, meant new opportunities for women outside the home. These new ideas, new technology, new social role were not mere adjustments to the status quo. These changes were altering peoples’ places in the home, in the work place, and giving rise to new voices in and models for the structure of society.
Society needed changing, according to a group of journalists who often provided the first glimpse of societal ills and injustice. Muckraker Jacob Riis revealed the filth of slum life in How the Other Half Lives (1890) and The Battle with the Slum (1902). Lincoln Steffens bared municipal corruption with The Shame of the Cities (1904), which began as a series of articles in McClures. Ida Tarbell charted the excesses of monopoly in her History of Standard Oil Company (1904), which also began in McClures. David Graham Phillips’ The Treason of the Senate (1906) exposed the corrupt influence of special interests over state legislators who elected U.S. senators. His work was a major force in the eventual passage of the 17th Amendment and election of U.S. Senators by the voters. Upton Sinclair, in The Jungle (1906), intended to provoke sympathy for labor, but incited indignation over the foul conditions at meat-packing plants. The work provoked governmental oversight of the food and drug producers. Those muckrake raids were part of the larger battle to reform and expand democracy, not just in terms of suffrage but also with respect to economic justice, regulation of monopolies, health and safety standards, and having elected officials answer to the electorate rather than the party machine.
Just as democracy was beginning to embrace more people, so was the press. Part of that wider appeal was visual, with introduction of technology that allowed inexpensive reproduction of pictures in newspapers, and the growth of film as mass entertainment. In the newspaper industry, “mass” media had taken on new dimension of largesse with the era of Pulitzer, Hearst, and “yellow journalism.” Mass circulations meant mass appeal, which often meant news adorned with sensation, which pictures enhanced.
Attuned to the journalism of the era, the suffragists demonstrated a good sense of mixing substance with spectacle. The parade energized a movement that had been in the doldrums for nearly two decades. The Washington suffrage parade was a lesson for suffragists, who discovered the now-clichéd axiom that all publicity is good publicity. Four years later, the suffragists picketed the White House, provoking their own arrests, and feeding the news machine even further by going on a hunger strike in prison.
The photos in this volume say something about the complexity of the logistics of the event, the response to it, a glimpse into creating news in the service of a cause. The suffragists are striking figures, forcefully making their way through the often hostile crowds at the center of the nation’s capital. The parade was a metaphor for a new chapter in democracy, which again would be sounded on the streets before enacted in the Congress, would trudge through the mobs before winding through legislatures. The pictures show something historic not just in its inherent significance, but in the machinations of democracy — a lofty ideal paraded through unruly streets.
Get a FREE copy of Kill the Quarterback
Get a free digital copy of Jim Stovall's mystery novel, Kill the Quarterback. You will also get Jim's newsletter and advanced notice of publications, free downloads and a variety of information about what he is working on. Jim likes to stay in touch, so sign up today.