Battle for the Ballot

She was the glamorous face of suffrage. Then she became its martyr.

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Inez Milholland leads a suffrage march in Washington in 1913. (Library of Congress)

She was draped in a white cape, wearing a golden crown as her gallant white horse strutted down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital on March 3, 1913.

Inez Milholland, a 26-year-old lawyer dubbed the “beautifulest” suffragist by the New York Tribune, braced herself against the cold March breeze as she led the long procession of women demanding the right to vote. Her horse, Grey Dawn, trotted so quickly that soon the 8,000 suffragists in costumes and on floats lagged several blocks behind her, according to “The Life and Times of Inez Milholland,” a biography of the trailblazer by Linda Lumsden.

“She projected power, bravery and intelligence,” Lumsden, a University of Arizona professor, said in a phone interview. “She cast women from victims to actors and gave the movement a modern face.”

But as Milholland and Grey Dawn approached Fifth Street NW, a crush of drunken rowdy men blocked her way, including police officers who did nothing to clear the mob.

The crowd surrounded Milholland and soon converged on the marchers, spitting on the women, hurling obscenities, and throwing lighted cigarettes and matches at them. Some even slapped women in the face, according to Senate hearings in the aftermath of the riot.

Image: An enormous crowd gathers along Pennsylvania Avenue to watch the parade to promote women's rights.

“There would have been nothing like this happen if you women would stay at home,” an officer snarled at one victim, according to The Washington Post.

Milholland soldiered on, using her horse to part the rioting men. “You men ought to be ashamed of yourselves,” she shouted, according to Lumsden’s book. “If you have a particle of backbone you will come out here and help us to continue our parade."

Finally, after a delay, U.S. cavalry troops galloped in from Fort Myer across the Potomac and cleared a path for Milholland, and the parade continued on the nation’s most prominent and political thoroughfare.

It would take another seven years for women to win the right to vote. But Milholland wouldn’t live to celebrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Instead she became the movement’s martyr.

An icon who persevered

She was a child of privilege, born in Brooklyn in 1886 to wealthy parents who were also social reformers. Her father was a lifelong crusader against racism, an NAACP member who in 1910 bankrolled W.E.B. Du Bois’s initial salary as editor of the Crisis, the group’s news magazine. She made a name for herself at Vassar, graduating in 1909 as a self-declared free thinker and advocate of free love.

After Vassar, Milholland settled in Greenwich Village and became involved in radical circles. Her love interests included Max Eastman, editor of the Masses; Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the wireless telegraph; and novelist Upton Sinclair. When she finally met the man she would marry, Eugen Boissevain, she proposed to him and they maintained an open, if torturous, relationship, according to “The Life and Times of Inez Milholland.”

Thinking it would help her advance her causes, she entered New York University Law School and then became an attorney in 1912. One of the first cases she worked on was about prison reform in Sing Sing and another involved challenging the death penalty.

Milholland lent her hand to numerous progressive causes. But the one she worked on the longest and most vocally was women’s suffrage.

“She would get nervous before a speech, but she made herself do it,” said Lumsden, who pored through the suffragist’s letters. “She was full of doubts about her abilities, but she would plunge ahead anyway. It’s something that women still experience today.”

Image: Alice Paul, pictured sewing a banner celebrating the 19th Amendment, chose Inez Milholland to lead the Washington parade because her fame would draw more media attention to the cause.

Alice Paul, leader of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, chose Milholland to lead the Washington procession for the same reason she decided to do a parade at all: publicity for the cause. The media-savvy Paul saw the glamorous Milholland as a tool to get attention.

And it worked.

“Miss Milholland has been hailed as one of the most beautiful women in all the land, and today she deserved the title,” said the lead story in the Washington Evening Star the day after the parade. Other newspapers echoed the assessment.

But Milholland was as fierce as she was beautiful, demanding that Black women from Howard University be allowed to march in the parade after Paul and other White suffragists tried to turn them away.

Ballot box
(Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)
Ida B. Wells organized women of color
Death threats drove journalist Ida B. Wells from Memphis after she wrote a 1892 lynching exposé. She moved to Chicago, where she urged women of color to get involved in politics, and she led a group at the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade in D.C. Told by organizers to go to the back or leave, she emerged from the crowd halfway through the march and joined the Illinois delegation at the front.

Consensus across the nation was that violence at the parade was a national disgrace. The Senate launched an investigation and more than 150 witnesses related chilling accounts of abuse over five days of hearings. The investigation gave suffragists a forum to criticize patriarchal politics, Lumsden said.

For the next three years, Milholland continued to practice law and deliver speeches demanding the franchise for women. But by 1916, Milholland began experiencing exhaustion, lightheadedness and dizzy spells. She would take to her bed after speaking or defending a death row prisoner, then force herself back out the next day to continue her work.

Meanwhile, in June of that year, during the presidential election campaign, Paul broke away from the national suffrage association and formed a women’s political party called the National Woman’s Party. Paul planned to send a “Suffrage Special” railroad car of female speakers to recruit members from Western states, many of which already had suffrage.

Milholland’s father encouraged her to go on the trek, saying it could boost her status into a national political career. He ended up making a large donation to Paul, and she agreed to have Milholland travel in the Western campaign.

Image: Milholland's white cape and white horse stand out against the crowds gathered in dark coats to watch the Washington march promoting women's suffrage in March 1913.

She got rave reviews on the trip despite her increasing physical weakness, according to Lumsden. She held standing room-only audiences rapt. But each night, she would collapse into bed, unable to move her body, aching from exhaustion until she was woken up the next day in another city or town to give the same speech again.

Finally, on an October night in Los Angeles, it happened. “She spoke with her usual fire and conviction,” Lumsden writes. “President Wilson, how long must this go on? No Liberty,” she said, rallying the crowd. Then she collapsed on stage. The audience gasped as people rushed to help her.

The doctors diagnosed aplastic anemia, a serious disease where the body can’t make red blood cells. She stayed in a Los Angeles hospital and received a blood transfusion two weeks later. But it was too late. On Nov. 25, 1916, Milholland died of the disease.

Suffragist Anne Martin asked what Milholland’s last words were. In a speech at Cooper Union in New York, Martin paraphrased, and the words became, “President Wilson, how long must women go on fighting for liberty?” according to Lumsden’s book. Militant suffragists then adopted the line as their battle cry.

Suffragists continued two more years of public protests, many in Milholland’s name, which elevated her in death from suffrage celebrity to women’s rights icon, Lumsden said. Finally, after Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment on Aug. 18, 1920, the fight was over. American women had won the right to vote.

Image: Suffragists picketing at the White House in 1918 hold a banner echoing Milholland's last words, which became a rallying cry for the movement.
About this story

Illustrations by Bárbara Malagoli for The Washington Post. Editing by Lynda Robinson. Art direction by Amanda Soto. Design and development by Madison Walls. Design editing by Suzette Moyer. Copy editing by Anne Kenderdine. Photo editing and research by Mark Miller.

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