On March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural parade, a pair of women mounted two horses near the U.S. Capitol. Jane Burleson was astride a dark horse, Inez Milholland atop a white one. They were about to lead a procession of 5,000 supporters of women’s suffrage. If the route was straightforward — 15 blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue — the day would not be.
For many of the thousands of tourists who had come to Washington to celebrate the new president, the women’s march was a curious sideshow. For some, it was a provocation.
Today we might call them counterprotesters. No sooner had the suffragists set off when crowds surged from the sidewalks and into the avenue, blocking the marchers’ way. Photos from the time show that it was a mostly male crowd: bowler hats as far as the eye could see.
“Those men behaved badly,” said Rebecca Boggs Roberts, author of a new book, “Suffragists in Washington, DC: The 1913 Parade and the Fight for the Vote.”
Said Roberts, “They tripped the women, spit on them, yelled things.”
That included some of the policemen who were supposedly there to keep order but joined in the jeering.
Ironically, march organizer Alice Paul was delighted by the response. The young suffragist knew that just as well-behaved women seldom made history, well-executed parades rarely made headlines. Paul had declined a suggestion from the District’s police chief that the march be held on a safer thoroughfare — 16th Street NW, for example.
“Alice Paul said: ‘I don’t want safe. I want to march where men march. I want all of the symbolism of going through the heart of federal Washington,’ ” Roberts said.
The parade came at a time when suffrage efforts seemed moribund. The movement had been around for nearly six decades with precious little success. Paul and the National American Woman Suffrage Association wanted to shake things up. They borrowed some of the confrontational style of their counterparts in England, where Paul had studied.
Some, but not all. Two weeks before the parade, suffragists in England had set off explosives in an unoccupied country house that was being built for Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George.
U.S. suffragists didn’t want to go that far, but, Roberts said, “just being out in public and speaking your mind was a pretty radical thing for gently bred women to do in 1913.”
Months of planning went into the parade. Floats were constructed. Orations written. Marchers were organized either by home state or profession. (The writers who participated wore matching outfits that they’d stained with ink.)
Though the women were united in their desire for equal rights, there were unfortunate divisions. A sorority from Howard University wanted to march with the college women, but Paul and her committee feared that if the members were allowed to, Southern participants would drop out in protest. The black women were instructed to march at the back of the parade.
This didn’t stop journalist Ida B. Wells, who marched with the delegation from Illinois.
“I have to say, the racial legacy has some highly embarrassing moments as seen from a 21st-century lens,” Roberts said.
If the marchers weren’t quite woke when it came to race, they were modern in other ways. They understood the power of messaging and would have recognized the impulses that led hundreds of thousands of pink-hatted demonstrators to descend on Washington 104 years later to protest President Trump’s treatment of women.
“Alice Paul would have loved social media,” Roberts said. “All those quotations on [suffragists’] banners? Those are tweets.”
The sign that was carried at the head of the parade in 1913 was certainly simple and direct: “We demand an amendment to the Constitution of the United States enfranchising the women of this country.” Just 103 characters long, leaving room for hashtags.
Creating a walking tour of suffragist graves in Congressional Cemetery inspired Roberts to write the book. Given her lineage, it was probably inevitable. Her mother is journalist Cokie Roberts. Lindy Boggs , the former diplomat and Democratic congresswoman from Louisiana, was her grandmother.
“You don’t come from a matriarchal family like mine without a healthy respect for women’s history,” she said. “My grandmother was born in 1916, before women got the vote, and ended up a member of Congress. She moved through these changes but always made the point that you owed something to the generation that came before us.”
In the end, a cavalry detachment from Fort Myer helped to clear the street. Even so, it took about three hours for the suffragist marchers to reach the Treasury Building on that frigid March day. Seven years later, American women could vote.
(For information on Roberts’s upcoming talks, go to rebeccaroberts.org.)
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.