The 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession through Washington, DC completely changed the way protests were viewed and carried out by the American public. Thousands of women took to the streets to fight for their right to vote. Their parade from the US Capitol to the Treasury Building set the precedent for future protest marches.
The 1913 Women's Suffrage Parade in Washington, DC, unprecedented in both its scale and its tactics, was a major turning point for the woman suffrage movement in the United States. Suffrage leader Alice Paul, who was recently elected head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s Congressional Committee, devised the idea for a large-scale public demonstration. Paul, who had spent time in England, witnessed the more militant tactics that the British suffragettes used to draw attention to their cause.
Suffragette parade, Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913 LOC (1913) by Library of CongressNational Women’s History Museum
Applying what she had learned in England, Paul decided a massive parade, perfectly timed with president-elect Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, would capitalize on the thousands of people gathered in the city.
From Seneca to Washington
During the mid-1800s, female abolitionists began drawing parallels between the condition of the enslaved population and their own condition as prisoners within a patriarchal society. Drawing on this sentiment, women’s rights activists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, organized a convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, during which they advocated for female suffrage. The Seneca Falls Convention is recognized as the beginning of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States.
After the Seneca Falls Convention, suffragists employed numerous strategies to gain support for their cause. Suffrage organizations distributed newspapers and handouts explaining how female enfranchisement would benefit society.
Not all women, however, supported the Suffrage Movement. Some considered politics masculine and thought women should stick to more feminine domestic roles.
Woman Suffrage Postcard/National Museum of American History (1911) by Votes-For-Women Publishing CompanyNational Women’s History Museum
In response, suffragists argued that the home was part of the larger community, so it was their duty to participate in politics.
Suffragists Mrs. Stanley McCormick and Mrs. Charles Parker, April 22, 1913 LOC (1913-04-22)National Women’s History Museum
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) first in 1869. The pair believed that instead of supporting the 15th Amendment as it was, women’s rights activists should fight for women to be included as well. The NWSA wanted a constitutional amendment to secure the vote for women, but it also supported a variety of reforms that aimed to make women equal members of society.
Suffragist Margaret Foley distributing the Woman's Journal and Suffrage News (1913)National Women’s History Museum
The second national suffrage organization established in 1869 was the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). Unlike the rival NWSA, AWSA supported the 15th Amendment that granted African American men the right to vote.
Diversity and Division
Despite the movement’s continuous growth after the convention, not all women were, or felt, welcomed in it. The mostly white movement often discriminated against black women working toward the same goal, and while the AWSA supported the 15th Amendment granting black men the vote, the NWSA did not because it neglected women. In 1890, however, both organizations merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which sought the vote for all American women.
In the 1880s, black reformers began organizing their own groups. In 1896, they founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), which became the largest federation of local black women’s clubs. Their motto was "Lifting as We Climb." They advocated for women’s rights as well as to “uplift” and improve the status of African Americans. Even though black men officially won the right to vote in 1870, impossible literacy tests, high poll taxes, and grandfather clauses prevented many of them from casting their ballots.
Mary Church Terrell (1880/1900) by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.National Women’s History Museum
In spite of the discrimination against them, some women of color became prominent in the suffrage movement, such as Mary Church Terrell, president of the NACW, and Adelina Otero-Warren, who played a major role in New Mexico’s ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Horse drawn float declares National American Woman Suffrage Association's/ Library of Congress (1914) by Edmonston, Washington, D.C. (Photographer)National Women’s History Museum
In 1890 the NWSA and the AWSA united to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) combining their efforts to work towards suffrage.
Ohio NextNational Women’s History Museum
For decades, suffragists worked hard to earn that right. Constitutional Amendments for woman suffrage were proposed to Congress in 1869, and every year between 1878 and 1920. In the 1890s, NAWSA developed a “state-by-state” strategy, earning women in Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Colorado the vote by 1896. Little progress was made between 1896 and 1913, until the march on Washington galvanized the Woman Suffrage Movement and helped lead to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Planning a Parade
Parade organizers strategically selected March 3, 1913 for the march. Woodrow Wilson was to be inaugurated as the new President the following day, and national press was in town and idle awaiting the inaugural festivities.
City officials tried to route the parade down 16th Street, away from the city’s core. Paul insisted that it march down Pennsylvania Avenue, deliberately following the same route that the inaugural parade would take the next day. The contrast between the two parades would prove striking. Reporters flocked to the suffrage parade, leaving Wilson to arrive at the train station unheralded.
Pageantry as Protest
When Paul began to organize a national suffrage parade, a key component of her plan was to channel media attention toward women’s voting rights. Paul had first-hand experience with British suffragettes’ use of pageantry and knew that New York suffragists had staged spectacular parades down Fifth Avenue in the prior three years. These savvy women knew that street spectacle drew attention to their cause.
Inez Milholland Boissevain, wearing white cape, seated on white horse at the National American Woman Suffrage Association parade, March 3, 1913, Washington, D.C. LOC (1913) by Library of CongressNational Women’s History Museum
The parade was choreographed to be highly photogenic. It was led by human rights lawyer Inez Milholland, astride a white horse.
Suffrage march line--How thousands of women parade today at Capitol LOC (1913-03-04) by Winsor McCayNational Women’s History Museum
The procession included nine bands, four mounted brigades, more than twenty floats, and around eight thousand marchers. The first contingent, dressed in national costume, represented countries whose governments had enfranchised women.
"Home Makers", Suffrage Parade LOC (1913-03) by Bain News ServiceNational Women’s History Museum
Subsequent groups showcased women by profession, including university women, homemakers, librarians, and nurses. All wore symbolic garb.
Women from all over the United States and abroad traveled to Washington, DC to participate in the march. Paul, working with Mary Church Terrell, allowed African American women to participate, but they had to march in the back of the parade. Prominent civil rights activist and suffragist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett didn't agree with the decision. While she started in the back, she ran to the front once the parade began to join the women in her state's delegation.
The parade’s drama was heightened by the crowd’s crass behavior. Marchers were subjected to insults and physical attacks by many of the half million, largely male, spectators. Police stood idly by while the women were assaulted. The press captured dramatic images of the event and distributed them to newspaper readers across the country.
[Hedwig Reicher as Columbia] in Suffrage Parade/Library of Congress (1913-03-03) by Bain News ServiceNational Women’s History Museum
While women for centuries have been figures of allegory, often cast in the role of the muse, the tableaux challenged these notions of femininity.
Woman Suffrage Postcard (1913)National Women’s History Museum
Women were dressed in classical attire, stressing grace and beauty, while also arguing for their rights as women.
From Sidelines to Headlines
Despite the chaos and violence that initially ensued during the parade, Paul declared the event a success. The parade made national headlines and once again captured the public’s interest in the suffrage movement. The parade and the crowd’s behavior drew attention to the suffragists’ cause. Readers were appalled to learn of the attacks and the police inaction. Even those who opposed votes for women acknowledged that, as citizens, the women had the right to peacefully assemble. That right had been abridged.
Pickets arrested at White House for woman suffrage demonstration, 1917 LOC (1917) by Library of CongressNational Women’s History Museum
The United States Senate held hearings to investigate the police response, eventually leading to the chief’s resignation. The hearings kept the women’s cause in the media spotlight for months to come.
woman suffrage pickets at white house LOC (1917) by Harris & EwingNational Women’s History Museum
Paul and her supporters built upon their success by staging protests in front of the White House. They created media-friendly opportunities to keep their message front and center for the American public.
Paul wanted suffragists to organize more parades and protests to get the public’s attention. She hoped this strategy would help secure the passage of a federal suffrage amendment. NAWSA, however, opposed these militant tactics. Its leaders preferred state-by-state campaigns and traditional methods like petitioning legislatures and lobbying politicians. Soon after the parade, militant suffragists (under Paul’s leadership) broke away from NAWSA and founded the Congressional Union. In 1917, they renamed their group the National Woman’s Party (NWP).
While protests at the White House seem common today, the NWP organized the first picket in January 1917. Through the cold and rain, suffragists with banners stood at President Woodrow Wilson’s gates on and off throughout the year. Even as the United States entered World War I, the NWP continued to picket in front of the White House. Their choice angered politicians and some of the public, who believed the picketers were unpatriotic.
Passing the 19th Amendment
The combination of NAWSA’s war efforts and the publicity attracted by the NWP's pickets of the White House led to widespread support for woman suffrage. Although President Woodrow Wilson previously had refused to endorse suffrage, in September 1918 he addressed the Senate in favor of votes for women. He appealed to patriotic arguments for suffrage when he asked representatives, “We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”
Pen used to sign the Woman Suffrage Joint ResolutionNational Women’s History Museum
The 19th Amendment states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Congress passed the amendment in June 1919. The NAWSA and NWP suffragists lobbied local and state representatives to ensure its subsequent ratification by the states.
The Suffragist "At Last" (1919-06-21) by The SuffragistNational Women’s History Museum
Harry Burn, a young representative from Niota, Tennessee, cast the deciding vote to ratify the 19th Amendment. His "yes" vote, encouraged by a letter from his mother, broke a tie and caused Tennessee to become the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment making it become law.
Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)
After the ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, female activists continued to use politics to reform society. NAWSA became the League of Women Voters. In 1923, the NWP proposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to ban discrimination based on sex. The League of Women Voters and efforts to pass the ERA continue today.
ERA Charm Bracelet (1) NMAH (1972) by Alice PaulNational Women’s History Museum
This is one of several charm bracelets started by Alice Paul in 1972, symbolizing the states that had voted to ratify the ERA.
Setting a Precedent
The 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade set a precedent for future large-scale demonstrations in the Nation’s Capital.
March on Washington
More than 250,000 people gathered in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963 for a political rally known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Organized by civil rights and religious organizations, it was designed to illuminate the political and social challenges confronting African Americans. The March, which became a key moment in the growing struggle for civil rights, culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a spirited call for racial justice and equality.
The January 21, 2017 Women’s March followed the legacy of the 1913 Suffrage Parade using pageantry and symbolism to garner media attention. Many women wore suffrage sashes honoring the suffragists that marched before them and pink hats as a sign of solidarity.
Leaving a Legacy
The 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession through Washington, DC had a lasting impact on political and social demonstrations in the United States. These couragous women set a precedent encouraging future generations to stand up and fight for what they believe in.
NWHM Director of Program: Elizabeth L. Maurer
Supporting Text: Allison K. Lange, PhD
Edited and Updated: Cara Bennet, NWHM Intern