The Idea of a Women's March on Washington


One hundred years ago this month, Alice Paul of New Jersey organized a parade of women in Washington, D.C.

It was an extraordinary concept, a leap in the annals of advocacy.

It would bring back to public attention the need for women to vote. She had been appointed Chairman of the Congressional Committee of the leading woman's suffrage group, NAWSA, and she decided that the eve of Woodrow Wilson's inauguration would be a good time to get a hearing.

Alice Paul put New Yorker Inez Milholland on horseback at the front because Milholland had been the star of a suffrage parade in New York the previous year, leading it on horseback.

To Exclude or Not Exclude Black Women?

Paul and her fellow members of the Congressional Committee found that the participation of black women was a thorny issue. Later in life, Paul described this issue as her main preoccupation. In particular, a new breakaway sorority at Howard University, Delta Sigma Theta, wanted to participate. The Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority's leadership at Howard University had decided to break away and form a new, more socially activist sorority.

These 22 Deltas wanted to march in the NAWSA parade. Paul, of course, believed strongly in action too, but she feared that participation by black women in still-segregated Washington would end the participation in the parade of the southern chapters of NAWSA.

Inez Milholland, daughter of the first (white) Treasurer of the NAACP (and my mother's aunt), was adamant that the new sorority should be allowed to march. She threatened to withdraw her commitment to lead the Washington parade on horseback. Milholland was a formidable adversary. She was one of the few women at that time to have graduated from law school, and she had been practicing law with a famous firm in New York. The Congressional Committee raised much of its money in New York City, where NAWSA was based. Milholland was well-connected with NAWSA supporters like Alva Belmont in New York. Alice Paul grudgingly agreed to allow the Howard sorors to join the parade. Her plan, which appears not to have been shared with Inez Milholland, was to minimize the danger to the parade by putting all the black women at the end of the parade, after the white men marched.

Looking back, Alice Paul may seem to have been a racist. But she worried that seeing black women marching in a parade would remind southern white voters that adding women voters would also add black voters.

These interpretations are supported by contemporary accounts. Suffragist Mary Church Terrell said that, "If [Paul] and other white suffragist leaders could get the Anthony Amendment through without enfranchising African American women, they would do so."

Linda Lumsden's biography of Inez Milholland makes clear that however she may have gone along with excluding blacks in other contexts, Milholland was firm about the participation of the Deltas. Milholland was, like her father, a member of the NAACP. Citing Mary Church Terrell again, Lumsden says that Milholland insisted that the Howard contingent be allowed to march. Emmett Scott, secretary-treasurer of Howard University, said that Milholland "was unwilling to participate in a parade symbolizing a movement which was not big enough or broad enough to live up to the principles for which it was contending." (See: Inez, p. 91.)

Alice Paul's parade was a huge success. It was the first real demonstration in Washington, with 5,000 marchers, according to the New York Times (the National Park Service reported 8,000). It being a Monday, the parade attracted 500,000 onlookers, mostly men, and they jeered the women as they went by. Eventually, the parade devolved into a riot.

Milholland moved the front of the parade ahead by using her horse to push back the edges of the crowd. But as the parade continued, push came to shove and the DC police couldn't keep order. Secretary of War Stimson saved the day by ordering cavalry in from Fort Myer to restore some calm, but by the time the military arrived, hundreds of women had been injured. The marchers were protected by the First Amendment, but not by the police. The police superintendent was later cross-examined by Congress and was relieved of his job.

On the day of the parade, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a former slave who had become a leading suffragist, defied the parade rules of the Congressional Committee and marched with her Chicago NAWSA delegation. Others followed suit. In the end, 22 women marched in the Delta contingent and an unknown number of black NAWSA delegates (100? 200?) marched with their chapters. The only black organization to march as a group in the parade was the Howard delegation of Deltas. If 250 black women altogether were in the march, and we use the NY Times number for the number of marchers, it means black marchers were at most 5 percent of the total.

The Deltas listen to their leadership on "public service" and "social activism."

Looking Back, or Looking Forward?

There were two concepts of what a Centennial parade should look like. In 1913, the idea was they should be white. In 2013, the idea is they should be black.

The once-tiny sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, was the main organizer of the 2013 event. They have now grown into an army of 300,000 black women world-wide. The Deltas reported 20,000 marchers signed up to be in Washington for the Centennial parade. The National Park Service posted a crowd estimate of 20,000-25,000. If 1,000 of the marchers were white men and women, then the racial percentages were exactly reversed from 1913. Instead of having black marchers representing at most 5 percent of the total, in 2013, at most, 5 percent were white.

The white and black marchers in 2013 have a different idea about progress. The white women's groups are pretty satisfied with the United States and mainly want to commemorate the actions of suffragists like Paul and Milholland in getting women the right to vote. The original marchers were dressed in suffragist attire (purple, gold and white sashes and dresses), and so were most of the traditional women's groups on March 3. Although the picketing of the White House did not take place until 1917, the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial group had an effective tableau in place on March 2, showing the Silent Sentinels in front of the White House. A National Park Service Ranger gave the history of woman suffrage in the United States while engaging the audience in role playing (see photo above).

For the Deltas, the parade was, yes, a lesson in history. But it was mainly about the next phase of the women's movement. Those Deltas are not satisfied with the status quo and they marched with a purpose, every one of them dressed in their red and white colors. The speeches in front of the Capitol (see photo) were about moving on to new challenges, using the vote to attack continuing abuse of women in the home or in the workplace.

Meaning of the 2013 Parade

In 1913 the black women were steered to the back of the march. In 2013 they led. The white women's groups waited for more than an hour, with several dozen delegates from the League of Women Voters (successor to NAWSA), the National Woman's Party (successor to the breakaway Congressional Committee of NAWSA), the National Organization of Women and the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Committee.

There was no rioting. Far from it. It being a Sunday, and Washington, DC workers now mostly living in the suburban areas, there were few onlookers, maybe 5,000 at most. Protest marches in Washington are now a regular occurrence. The Deltas were in D.C. in January and will be back in a couple of months. And besides, the current police chief in Washington is Cathy Lanier.

Inez Milholland's insistence that the Deltas be allowed to march took on huge significance for me as I watched an hour-long parade of the sorority's many chapters go by. She knew which way the winds were blowing. The purpose of most of the marchers in the 2013 parade, and the meaning of the event, was not primarily as a memorial to the achievements of yesterday.

Rather, it was a reaffirmation of what the original marchers believed in. Progress has been achieved -- yes, that is obvious -- since the first parade. But the Deltas are marching not so much out of reverence for the past as out of determination to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.