Suffragette City: When It Comes to Pennsylvania Avenue Protest Marches, Women Were First

When the tens of thousands of women marched down Washington D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue last month for the 3rd annual Woman’s March, they were literally walking in the footsteps of fellow women who undertook that same protest trek 106 years ago in an attempt to gain the right to vote in American elections.

Today, all types of protesters use Pennsylvania Avenue for demonstrations . In fact, one day prior to the Women’s March, the long avenue which connects the White House and the Capitol Building, was filled with thousands of shouting, singing, sign-carrying anti-abortionists of all ages.

But they, like the women who followed them one day later, owe a debt of gratitude to the early 20th Century women who first recognized the power of a Pennsylvania Avenue protest when they staged the initial such march in the history of the nation’s capital.

In her book, Suffragists in Washington, D.C.: The 1913 Parade and the Fight for the Vote, author Rebecca Boggs Roberts narrates the heroic struggle of Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party over gender voting parity, a fight which while occurring all over the nation, often focused in Washington.

Despite a call for voting rights first being issued at the noted Seneca Falls Women’s Conference in 1848, by 1913 women still were banned from the voting booths in all but six states. Early movement leaders like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone had worked tirelessly for the cause, but their actions had produced little change on the part of the majority of American men who opposed allowing women to cast ballots.

While there was obviously long-held, ingrained sexism behind the contention that women just weren’t intellectually or physically capable of the “manly” tasks of voting and self-government, there were also several groups fueling the anti-suffrage cause. Those groups were worried that allowing women to vote would threaten their their special interests and restrict their businesses. Included in that contingent were the liquor lobby, corrupt party machines, and greedy industrialists who relied on child labor and unregulated working conditions for their huge profits.

But about a decade into a new century, a new breed of female activists, headed by Alice Paul, were now ready for more direct, aggressive actions to force the issue. Paul called for The Great Suffrage Parade and Pageant, which would be the first civil rights march in history to use the nation’s capital as background, to be unleashed on the day before Woodrow Wilson, who at the time was no supporter of the women’s movement, was to be sworn in as the 28th president of the United States.

The parade and pageant were disrupted by mobs of angry men who hurled drunken insults and began spitting upon, grabbing, and tripping the women, while police stood by doing nothing. Finally, U.S. military cavalry arrived, pushing the crowd back. “Their horses were driven into the throngs and whirled and wheeled until hooting men and women were forced to retreat,” The Washington Post reported the next day.

At least 100 people injured in the melee were taken to a local emergency hospital for treatment. On one level, by the end of the day, it appeared the protest had been a disaster. “Very little had gone according to plan,” Boggs Roberts writes. “Helen Keller, who was scheduled to speak, was so frightened by the crowds that she could not participate. Every woman in the hall (the end of the march) was some combination of filthy, battered, exhausted, unnerved, insulted, weepy, furious, and freezing”

But Paul and a few other leaders realized the debacle had actually been a great success for the cause. The enraged male brutality would be reported, creating more sympathy from the public for women’s voting rights..

Emboldened, groups of women now began picketing, standing by the White House with banners demanding a federal amendment. No one had ever done that before. Many of the protesters were thrown into filthy jails or workhouses on trumped up charges. Newspapers across the nation covered the story, which both created sympathy for the women and encouraged other women to emulate the D.C. actions.

The women arrested insisted upon trials, knowing they would bring even more national publicity. Meanwhile, disgruntled American men, following the lead of those in England, began calling the crusaders “suffragettes” as a way to distinguish the radical women from the better behaved “suffragists”. But the attempt to disparage the large portion of the movement backfired. “In a move that would be echoed by ‘Nasty Women’ over a century later, the members of the WSPU (radical Women’s Social and Political Union) proudly co-opted the name and were known ever after as suffragettes,” Roberts explained.

During their long series of protests, women were finally granted a permit that allowed them to demonstrate in Lafayette Square directly across from the White House. This marked the first time that such an action had ever been permitted and political demonstrations have been staged there ever since.

Finally, in 1920, seven years after the first D. C. protest, Tennessee ratified the voting amendment, meaning it had approval from enough states to become federal law.

Of course the right to vote was huge, but it was just another big battle in the overall war for gender equality, a conflict that remains ongoing today. We were reminded of that this week as Democratic congresswomen and female senators wore white to President Donald Tump’s State of the Union message at the Capitol. The early 20th Century suffragists donned white to generate photo coverage in daily newspapers. “It’s a color that going to stand out in a sea of navy suits, so that looks good on television,” Boggs Roberts told The Washington Post.

As women continue to reenact the actions of those bold, brave women who came before them, they are appreciative of all those who sacrificed and realize that, as women, they have indeed, as the old Virginia Slims cigarette commercial used to contend, “come a long way baby” from 1913. But there is a quite a distance yet to travel. And, by the steps they take, these modern women and their supporters indicate they will continue to march until gender parity is both a legal reality and embedded in the daily behavior reflected in the social fabric of America.

Boggs Walters included a self-directed DC Suffrage walking tour in her book. Here are the stops.

  1. Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument (144 Constitution Avenue NE)
  2. Capitol Visitor Center (First Street and East Capitol Street)
  3. The Peace Monument (First Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue NW)
  4. The National Archives (700 Pennsylvania Avenue)
  5. Freedom Plaza (Pennsylvania Avenue NW between Thirteenth Steet NW and Fourteenth Street NW)
  6. U. S. Treasury Department (1500 Pennsylvania Avenue)
  7. The White House (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue)
  8. Lafayette Square (Bounded on the north by H Street NW, on the east by by Madison Place NW, on the south by Pennsylvania Avenue NW and on the west by Jackson Place NW)
  9. Cameron House (21 Madison Place NW)
  10. Jackson Place Headquarters (722 Jackson Place)