As Woodrow Wilson and his aides waited for the train to pull into the station, they braced themselves for crowds and chaos. The Democratic nominee had beaten both a sitting president—incumbent William Howard Taft—and a former one, Theodore Roosevelt, who ran as a third-party candidate. Now, he was on the verge of moving into the White House—and more convinced than ever that God had destined him to become President.
Expecting a hero’s welcome in Washington on the day before his inauguration as the 28th President of the United States, Wilson and his aides were surprised to be met not with a bang, but a whimper. A few college students greeted him with a song, but the train platform was strangely bare.
“Where are all the people?” an aide asked.
“Watching the parade,” someone replied.
The start of Wilson’s presidency had just been overshadowed by a historic event—a massive suffrage parade that relegated his inauguration to a mere historical footnote. More than a century before the Women’s March diverted attention from the inauguration of President Donald Trump and made headlines of its own, the unconventional parade captured the nation’s attention, galvanizing public support and setting the stage for Wilson’s turbulent relationship with the women’s movement.
At the time, the concept of suffrage for women was still broadly unpopular in the United States. Though some states allowed women to vote, the idea rankled men and women who thought that women should stay home and let their husbands exercise political power. Though suffragists had long agitated for the vote, the movement felt stagnant and lacked national support, and the defeat of Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party in the recent election felt like a further blow to the prospect of suffrage.
The national movement might have lacked energy, but Alice Paul didn’t. The 28-year-old had just returned to the United States from a kind of suffrage apprenticeship in England, where she had become friends with radical suffragists and learned more about their militant tactics. Paul was passionately committed to the cause, and she thought American suffragists could learn a thing or two from their English sisters.
Great Britain’s suffragists were PR masters, leveraging good and bad news to spread word of their movement far and wide. Paul proposed that the National American Woman Suffrage Association hold a parade demanding a Constitutional suffrage amendment and take advantage of the crowds and press that were sure to descend on Washington for Wilson’s inauguration.
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Paul wasn’t content to hold just any parade: She wanted the most visible, symbolically powerful route possible. She insisted on a route that passed down Pennsylvania Avenue, as close as possible to both the crowds that had gathered for the inauguration and American landmarks like the Capitol and the White House. When the police refused to permit the parade, telling Paul that “It’s totally unsuitable for women to be marching down Pennsylvania Avenue,” Paul knew she had her route. Other women used their political and family connections to pressure the police chief into changing his mind. Finally, faced with a danger to police funds, the chief relented.
Though the national women’s movement agreed that the parade should be rife with political and social symbolism, they couldn’t agree on one crucial detail: how to deal with black suffragists. At the time, Washington was segregated, and Paul feared that allowing black women in the parade would alienate Southern suffragists. She quietly discouraged their participation, and NAWSA decided that black suffragists should march at the back of the parade.
Some complied, with one notable exception: Ida B. Wells, who refused to march in a segregated group. “Either I go with you or not at all,” she told the Illinois delegation. “I am not taking this stand because I personally wish for recognition. I am doing it for the future benefit of my whole race.” On the day of the parade, Wells marched with the Illinois delegation, not the black suffragists.
On the day of the parade, thousands of women—estimates vary between 5,000 and 10,000—massed at the Capitol. At the front of the parade was Inez Milholland, a pioneering suffragist who led the parade from atop a white horse. Milholland’s beauty played against stereotypes of suffragists as dour spinsters. She was the perfect figurehead for the parade. She was followed by women from countries that allowed women to vote, suffrage pioneers, and NAWSA state delegations.
The world had never seen such a well-organized, impressive suffrage spectacle before. Floats and bands accompanied the white-clad women, giving the parade a dignified air. But the crowds of onlookers—an estimated 500,000 people—disrupted the parade with jeers and mockery. Men refused to clear the way for the parading women, and when the police intervened things got violent.
“Women were spit upon, slapped in the face, tripped up, pelted with burning cigar stubs, and insulted by jeers and obscene language too vile to print or repeat,” wrote one contemporary observer. Over 200 people were injured, and another 169 were arrested for obstructing traffic once they reached the White House. “Through all the confusion and turmoil,” noted another observer, “the women marched calmly, keeping a military formation as best they could.”
The parade was a smashing success and a turning point in the movement. By overshadowing Wilson’s inauguration, the suffragists had made it clear that they would not be ignored—a promise they followed through on with years of clashes with Wilson on behalf of suffrage and, in 1919, the passage of the 19th Amendment.
For Paul, the success of the parade lay largely in its novelty. “There had never been a procession of women for any cause under the sun, so people did want to go and see it,” she later recalled. Women may never have marched before, but they would again—thanks largely to the pioneering suffragists who set the stage for the expansion of women’s rights.