Historical Perspective: The Women’s March of 2017 and the Woman Suffrage Procession of 1913
By Michele Rosen
Since November 9, I’ve been thinking a lot about Alice Paul. I’ve always found it remarkable that Paul continued to fight for women’s rights even after putting her body on the line for seven years to win the fight for women’s suffrage. If she were alive today, I think Paul would be saddened but not surprised by the loss of the first female major party candidate for president. I also think she would have been front and center at the Women’s March on Washington. Given these thoughts, it’s no surprise that, while participating in the Women’s March, I saw the unfolding events in part through the lens of the Woman Suffrage Procession, which Paul organized on the day before Inauguration Day in 1913, and at which thousands of women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to demand their right to vote in the first large-scale inauguration protest (Dwyer).
As Alan Barth wrote, “News is only the first rough draft of history.” As a former journalist, I felt as if I was standing in just such a rough draft from the moment I arrived on the steps of the Capitol on the way to the rally on January 21, 2017. Emerging as it did in the skeletal remains of the inauguration, with barriers, fences, and stands still lining the streets, the March felt like a rebirth: a phoenix rising out of the ashes, wearing a knitted pink pussy hat and carrying a sign that read, “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.” We cannot know now how historians of the future will perceive the march, whether it will be a footnote or one of the first signs of a re-emergent progressive movement. But a number of speakers at the rally emphasized the event’s historical significance. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand explicited referred to the Woman Suffrage Procession, adding that the March represented “the beginning of the revival of the women’s movement.” Angela Davis asserted that the marchers must “recognize that we are collective agents of history.” Several other speakers referred to feminists and activists of the past, from their mothers and grandmothers to Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth. While we cannot know the place of the March in history, we can afford ourselves of the lessons of history by considering the March in the context of the Woman Suffrage Procession and its aftermath.
That’s not to say there were no differences between the Procession and the March. In particular, the Procession benefited from a clarity of purpose – women’s suffrage – that was not shared by the participants of the Women’s March, where it seemed as if each marcher had a different motivation for attending, as indicated by the signs referencing concerns about LGBTQIA rights, abortion, the First Amendment, sexual assault, climate change, immigration, discrimination, and more. On the other hand, the March had an advantage that the Procession lacked – there were very few counterprotestors (I personally saw a total of four people carrying Bikers for Trump signs). An article in the Women’s Journal described the Procession:
“Washington has been disgraced. Equal suffrage has scored a great victory. Thousands of indifferent women have been aroused. Women were spit upon, slapped in the face, tripped up, pelted with burning cigar stubs, and insulted by jeers and obscene language too vile to print or repeat.” (“Parade Struggles”)
But the differences between the events pale in comparison to the similarities both large and small. While the suffragists were denied a permit to march on Pennsylvania Ave., for example, the March was denied a permit to hold the rally on the Mall, which would have more easily accommodated the unexpectedly large crowd. Despite this obstacle, both events overshadowed the inaugural ceremonies that immediately preceded or followed (“10,000 Women”). Both the Procession and March also suffered from controversy with women of color. In 1913, some white organizers opposed the participation of the National Association of Colored Women in the Procession, although women of color were eventually allowed to march with their state’s delegations (Harvey). In 2017, some women of color opposed the March in part because of a lack of diversity among the organizers. There were also disagreements between the March organizers and pro-life, anti-administration groups who were allegedly excluded from the planning.
Despite the controversies and the differences between the two events, both the Procession and the March derived a great deal of their power from the diversity of the women who marched. Jennifer Borda described the Procession’s participants:
“The masses of women who marched accentuated the far-reaching strength and unanimity of the cause as women of all ages, classes, and ethnicity banned together in communal sisterhood… by showing women from disparate social, ethnic, and economic backgrounds, these parades created a unified political identity for the movement by emphasizing strength through diversity” (37-38).
The Procession was explicitly designed to showcase this diversity by director Harriot Stanton Blatch, who instructed participants to wear outfits that showed the “vast diversity of women who supported the cause,” including “collegiate women in caps and gowns,” “athletic girls,” mothers with strollers, nurses, police officers, farmers, and jewelers (Borda 36-37). The diversity at the March was not directly orchestrated by the organizers; instead, they invited a wide variety of speakers and groups to the rally, many of whom delivered a message emphasizing unity. “If we do not stand together, march together, fight together for the next four years, then we will lose together,” said actress America Ferrara, who spoke first. “There is nothing more powerful than a group of determined sisters… standing up for what we know is right,” said Sen. Kamala Harris. “Today is a day for us to come together in our nation’s capitol to be seen, to be heard, to be felt.”
The palpable depth of the emotion among the participants at the March accentuated the feeling of participating in what Borda describes as a “public rite.” This sacralization was an explicit goal of the Procession, designed to create a context that would allow the suffragists to “perform highly ritualized public expressions of popular opinion and resistance to the American government and its policies” (29). Organizers of the both the Procession and March were clear that the events were designed to influence the media and non-participants who heard about the event. “The sight of thousands of women marching in unison made clear that the movement was driven by an active army of women willing to work together for a united cause” (Borda 47).
The similarities between the Woman Suffrage Procession and the Women’s March on Washington imply that we can look to the aftermath of the Procession to learn what may happen next. The Procession was only the beginning of the resurgent suffrage movement. Parades and protests continued for several years, including after the United States entered World War I in April 1917, leading to accusations that the suffragists were unpatriotic. Later that year, Paul and other suffragists were arrested for blocking traffic at the White House and incarcerated at Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. During her seven-month sentence, Paul and others went on a hunger strike to protest their conditions and were eventually force-fed. It was only after the abuse of the suffragists became public knowledge that Pres. Wilson called for approval of the suffrage amendment in a speech to the Senate in September 1918, which finally led to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in August 1920. The suffragists who organized the Procession understood “the rhetorical force of the parade as a vehicle for social change” by providing women an “opportunity to take suffrage politics more boldly into public spaces” (Borda 25). At the March, activist Gloria Steinem thanked the participants “for understanding that sometimes we have to put our bodies where our beliefs are. Sometimes, pressing send is not enough.” If history is any guide, however, marching will not be enough this time either. That said, surrounded by an ocean of women in our nation’s capital under cold, gray January skies, this marcher thought it was quite a good start.
“10,000 Women March Through Streets of Nation’s Capital.” East Oregonian, March 3, 1913. Retrieved from Chronicling America, Library of Congress.
Barth, Alan. “Synthetic Misanthrope.” Review of The Autobiography of a Curmudgeon by Harold L. Ickes. The New Republic, 108 (20) May 17, 1943, 676-77.
Borda, Jennifer L. “The Woman Suffrage Parades of 1910-1913: Possibilities and Limitations of an Early Feminist Rhetorical Strategy.” Western Journal of Communication, 66 (1) Winter 2002: 25-52.
Dwyer, Dialynn. “A nation of dissent: The most famous inaugural protests in U.S. history.” boston.com, January 18, 2017. http://www.boston.com/news/history/2017/01/18/a-nation-of-dissent-the-most-famous-inaugural-protests-in-u-s-history.
Harvey, Sheridan. “Marching for the vote: remembering the woman suffrage parade of 1913.” Library of Congress. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/aw01e/aw01e.html.
“Parade Struggles to Victory Despite Disgraceful Scenes.” Women’ Journal and Suffrage News, March 8, 1913. Retrieved from Chronicling America, Library of Congress.
Michele Rosen received her PhD in Humanities from The University of Texas at Dallas in Fall 2015. She currently works as a freelance translator and book editor.