Women's Suffrage Turning Points: 1913 - 1917

Demonstrating for Women's Rights

Suffrage Parade 1913
Suffrage Parade 1913. Paul Thompson/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Women Organize Parade to Disrupt Inauguration, March 1913

Official Program, Woman Suffrage Demonstration, 1913
Official Program, Woman Suffrage Demonstration, 1913. Courtesy Library of Congress

When Woodrow Wilson arrived in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913, he expected to be met by crowds of people welcoming him for his inauguration as United States President the next day.

But very few people came to meet his train. Instead, half a million people were lining Pennsylvania Avenue, watching a Woman Suffrage Parade.

The parade was sponsored by the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and by the Congressional Committee within NAWSA. Organizers of the parade, led by suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, planned the parade for the day prior to Wilson's first inauguration in hopes that it would turn attention to their cause: winning a federal suffrage amendment, gaining the vote for women.  They hoped to get Wilson to support the amendment.

Five to Eight Thousand March in Washington DC

Inez Milholland Boissevain, wearing white cape, seated on white horse
Inez Milholland Boissevain at the NAWSA parade, March 3, 1913. Library of Congress

Five to eight thousand suffragists marched from the U.S. Capitol past the White House in this Inauguration protest.

Most of the women, organized into marching units walking three across and accompanied by suffrage floats, were in costume, most in white. At the front of the march, lawyer Inez Milholland Boissevain led the way on her white horse.

This was the first parade in Washington, DC, in support of woman suffrage.  

Liberty and Columbia at the Treasury Building

Hedwig Reicher as Columbia in Suffrage Parade
Hedwig Reicher as Columbia in Suffrage Parade. March 1913. Library of Congress

In another tableau that was part of the march, several women represented abstract concepts.  Florence F. Noyes wore a costume depicting "Liberty". Hedwig Reicher's costume represented Columbia. They posed for photographs with other participants in front of the Treasury building.

Florence Fleming Noyes (1871 - 1928) was an American dancer. At the time of the 1913 demonstration, she had recently opened a dance studio in Carnegie Halls. Hedwig Reicher (1884 - 1971) was a German opera singer and actress, known in 1913 for her Broadway roles. 

Black Women Sent to the Back of the March

Ida B. Wells, 1891
Ida B. Wells, 1891. Library of Congress

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the journalist who led an anti-lynching campaign beginning in the late 19th century, organized the Alpha Suffrage Club among African American women in Chicago and brought members with her to participate in the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C.

Mary Church Terrell also organized a group of African American women to be part of the suffrage parade.

But the organizers of the march asked that the African American women march at the back of the parade. Their reasoning?

A constitutional amendment for woman suffrage, the object of the parade, would have to be ratified by two-thirds of the state legislatures after garnering two-thirds votes in both the House and Senate.

In the Southern states, opposition to woman suffrage was intensified as legislators feared that granting women the vote would add even more Black voters to the voting rolls. So, the parade organizers reasoned, a compromise had to be struck: African American women could march in the suffrage parade, but in order to prevent raising even more opposition in the South, they would have to march at the back of the march. The votes of Southern legislators, in Congress and in the state houses, were possibly at stake, the organizers reasoned.

Mixed Reactions

Mary Terrell accepted the decision. But Ida Wells-Barnett did not. She tried to get the white Illinois delegation to support her opposition of this segregation, but found few supporters. The Alpha Suffrage Club women either marched in the back, or, as did Ida Wells-Barnett herself, decided not to march in the parade at all.

But Wells-Barnett didn't really just bow out of the march.  As the parade progressed, Wells-Barnett emerged from the crowd and joined the (white) Illinois delegation, marching between two white supporters in the delegation. She refused to comply with the segregation.

This was neither the first nor the last time that African American women found their support of women's rights received with less than enthusiasm.  The previous year, a public airing of the dispute between African American and white supporters of woman suffrage aired in The Crisis magazine and elsewhere, including in two article: Suffering Suffragettes by W. E. B. Du Bois and Two Suffrage Movements by Martha Gruening.

Onlookers Harass and Attack Marchers, Police Do Nothing

Crowd at the March 1913 Suffrage March
Crowd at the March 1913 Suffrage March. Library of Congress

Of the estimated half million onlookers watching the parade instead of greeting the President-elect, not all were supporters of woman suffrage. Many were angry opponents of suffrage, or were upset at the march's timing. Some hurled insults; others hurled lighted cigar butts. Some spit at the women marchers; others slapped them, mobbed them, or beat them.

The parade organizers had obtained the necessary police permit for the march, but the police did nothing to protect them from their attackers. Army troops from Fort Myer were called in to stop the violence. Two hundred marchers were injured.

The next day, the inauguration proceeded. But public outcry against the police and their failure resulted in an investigation by the District of Columbia Commissioners and the ousting of the police chief.

Militant Strategies Emerge After the 1913 Demonstration

Lucy Burns
Lucy Burns. Library of Congress

Alice Paul saw the March 3, 1913 suffrage parade as an opening volley in a more militant woman suffrage battle.

Alice Paul had moved to Washington, D.C. in January of that year. She rented a basement room at 1420 F Street NW. With Lucy Burns and others she organized the Congressional Committee as an auxiliary within the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). They began to use the room as an office and base for their work to win a federal constitutional amendment for woman suffrage.

Paul and Burns were among those who believed that state-by-state efforts to amend state constitutions was a process that would take too long and would fail in many states. Paul's experience working in England with the Pankhursts and others had convinced her that more militant tactics were also needed to bring public attention and sympathy to the cause.

The March 3 suffrage parade was designed to gain maximum exposure and to draw attention which would normally be given to the Presidential inauguration in Washington.

After the March suffrage parade put the issue of woman suffrage more prominently into the public eye, and after the public outcry over the lack of police protection helped increase public sympathy for the movement, the women moved ahead with their goal.

Introducing the Anthony Amendment

Unidentified woman with Alice Paul, 1913
Unidentified woman with Alice Paul, 1913. Library of Congress

In April, 1913, Alice Paul began promoting the "Susan B. Anthony" amendment, to add women's voting rights to the United States Constitution.  She saw it reintroduced into Congress that month.  It did not pass in that session of Congress.

Sympathy Led to More Support

New York Suffrage March, 1913
New York Suffrage March, 1913. Library of Congress

The sympathy generated by the harassment of the marchers, and the police failure to protect, led to even more support for the cause of woman suffrage and women's rights. In New York, the annual woman suffrage parade in 1913, held on May 10,

Suffragists marched for the vote in 1913 in New York City on May 10. The demonstration drew 10,000 marchers, one in twenty of whom were men. Between 150,000 and 500,000 watched the parade down Fifth Avenue.

The sign in the rear of the parade says, "New York City women have no vote at all." In the front, other suffragists carry signs pointing out voting rights women already have in various states. "In all but 4 states women have some suffrage" is at the center of the front row, surrounded by other signs including "Connecticut women have had school suffrage since 1893" and "Louisiana tax paying women have limited suffrage." Several other signs point to upcoming suffrage votes, including "Pennsylvania men will vote on a woman suffrage amendment November 2."

Exploring More Militant Strategies for Women's Suffrage

The Susan B. Anthony amendment was introduced again into Congress on March 10, 1914, where it failed to get the necessary two-thirds vote, but drew a vote of 35 to 34. A petition to extend voting rights to women had been first introduced into Congress in 1871, following the ratification of the 15th Amendment extending voting rights regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The last time that a federal bill had been submitted to Congress, in 1878, it had been defeated by an overwhelming margin.

In July, the Congressional Union women organized an automobile procession (automobiles still being newsworthy, especially when driven by women) to present a petition for the Anthony amendment with 200,000 signatures from around the United States.

In October, militant British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst began an American speaking tour. In November elections, Illinois voters approved a state suffrage amendment, but Ohio voters defeated one.

Suffrage Movement Splits

Carrie Chapman Catt
Carrie Chapman Catt. Cincinnati Museum Center/Getty Images

By December, the NAWSA leadership, including Carrie Chapman Catt, decided that the more militant tactics of Alice Paul and the Congressional Committee were unacceptable and that their goal of a federal amendment was premature. The December NAWSA convention expelled the militants, who renamed their organization the Congressional Union.

The Congressional Union, which merged in 1917 with the Women's Political Union to form the National Woman's Party (NWP), continued to work through marches, parades and other public demonstrations.

White House Demonstrations 1917

Women's Suffrage Demonstration, White House, 1917
Women's Suffrage Demonstration, White House, 1917. Harris & Ewing/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

After the 1916 Presidential election, Paul and the NWP believed that Woodrow Wilson had made a commitment to support a suffrage amendment. When, after his second inauguration in 1917, he did not fulfill this promise, Paul organized 24-hour picketing of the White House.

Many of the picketers were arrested for picketing, for demonstrating, for writing in chalk on the sidewalk outside the White House, and other related offenses. They often went to prison for their efforts. In prison, some followed the British suffragists' example and went on hunger strikes. As in Britain, the prison officials responded by force-feeding the prisoners. Paul herself, while imprisoned at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, was force-fed. Lucy Burns, with whom Alice Paul had organized the Congressional Committee in early 1913, spent perhaps the most time in prison of all the suffragists.

Brutal Treatment of Suffragists at Occoquan

Efforts Bearing Fruit

Delegation of NAWSA officers to President Wilson, on steps of the executive offices of the White House
Delegation of NAWSA officers to President Wilson, on steps of the executive offices of the White House. Library of Congress

Their efforts succeeded in keeping the issue in the public eye. The more conservative NAWSA also remained active in working for suffrage. The effect of all the efforts bore fruit when the U.S. Congress passed the Susan B. Anthony amendment: the House in January 1918 and the Senate in June, 1919.

Women's Suffrage Victory: What Won the Final Battle?

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Women's Suffrage Turning Points: 1913 - 1917." ThoughtCo, Dec. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/womens-suffrage-turning-points-1913-1917-3530506. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, December 27). Women's Suffrage Turning Points: 1913 - 1917. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/womens-suffrage-turning-points-1913-1917-3530506 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Women's Suffrage Turning Points: 1913 - 1917." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/womens-suffrage-turning-points-1913-1917-3530506 (accessed January 22, 2021).