Sometimes, being polite just doesn’t work. As the 20th century dawned, American activists for women's suffrage were coming to the conclusion that decades of quiet appeals to reason and logic had failed to move the needle for their cause.
Fresh strategies were required. A new generation of determined women nationwide stood eager to adopt the dramatic, even confrontational tactics that men employed in their own battles for power and influence. Abandoning demure and dignified lobbying, these new suffragists embraced controversy and courted publicity to appeal directly to the public. No tactic was off-limits: parades and pageants, suffrage "hikes" (from New York to Washington), “suffrage trains” and even a “suffrage barge” on the Mississippi. Women threw bottles containing suffrage messages into the sea and threw Votes for Women leaflets out of biplanes. They undertook hunger strikes in jail, then publicized what it felt like to be forcibly fed. Their renewed campaign would pull no punches, either in ambition or creativity.
Washington’s First Planned Protest March
When Woodrow Wilson arrived in Washington, D.C. the day before his inauguration as the country’s 20th president on March 3 1913, the platform at Union Station was eerily empty. The crowds, it turned out, had already flocked to Pennsylvania Avenue to watch something truly revolutionary: a massive parade for women’s suffrage, the capital’s first-ever organized political protest march. New York campaigner Inez Milholland, riding astride her gray horse with long hair rippling down her back, led as many as 10,000 women in front of an estimated crowd of half a million. Trumpets stationed at each intersection marked their approach; speakers along the way relayed the events to those in the back of the crowd who couldn’t see for themselves.
Organized by 28-year-old Alice Paul—who had learned the art of propaganda from British suffragettes—the parade was designed to show that women could be intelligent and well-informed and vote, without losing their grace and femininity. Hecklers in the crowd appeared to outnumber supporters, however, and only volunteers holding back the crowd stopped suffrage opponents from physically attacking the women as they marched.
Transcending Color Barriers
When southern women objected to Black women’s participation in mainstream events like the 1913 march, organizers acquiesced. But some women of color ignored those restrictions. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the crusading anti-lynching journalist who’d co-founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago that year, fully intended to march with the Illinois delegation at the giant Washington event until organizers told her (and other Black women) to march at the back of the parade as a racially segregated unit. “Either I go with you or not at all,” Wells-Barnett declared. Nowhere to be seen at the start of the parade, she effectively crashed the event midstream, noted a Chicago Tribune reporter on the scene: “Suddenly from the crowd on the sidewalk Mrs. Barnett walked calmly out to the delegation and assumed her place” among the all-white Illinois delegates.
Black and brown suffrage activists weren’t just fighting for the vote; they were also battling for civil rights and an end to racial violence and injustice—and they often did so by consolidating their messaging. Suffragists of color may have brandished purple banners (one of the hues closely associated with the women’s suffrage cause), but blazoned on many of them was the distinctive motto adopted by the National Association of Colored Women: “Lifting as We Climb.”
Women who weren’t able to vote could still take to the air—literally—to demand the franchise. In summer of 1912, Indianapolis activists chartered a hot air balloon from which suffrage buttons were dropped to onlookers below. In May 1913, “General” Rosalie Jones, a veteran campaigner, hopped into the passenger seat of a biplane, tied down her skirts with blue string, and took off. By the time she arrived at a Staten Island air carnival 15 minutes later to give a speech, she had scattered hundreds of yellow pro-suffrage pamphlets to assembled crowds. In 1916, Lucy Burns left the “Suffrage Special” train tour in Seattle to board a hydroplane and bombard the city with leaflets promoting that year’s scheduled National Women’s Party Convention in Chicago.
Campaigners planned a similar leaflet attack on President Wilson’s yacht later that year while he attended a ceremony at the Statue of Liberty. Leda Richberg-Hornsby, the first woman graduate of the Wright Brothers’ flying school, took the rudder (wearing pants, not skirts) and together with Ida Blair, took off with suffrage pamphlets. Unfortunately, high winds caused the “Suff Bird Women” to crash-land in Staten Island. (Both survived with only bruises.)
The Suffrage Bell
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Some smaller-scale campaigns, while less dramatic, packed a powerful punch. In 1915, Philadelphia suffragist Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger commissioned a bronze replica of the Liberty Bell. The Justice Bell (a.k.a. the Suffrage Bell) didn’t replicate the original’s distinctive crack, but it did have its clapper immobilized to render the bell soundless—symbolic of America’s voiceless women.
Volunteers drove the Justice Bell, installed in the back of a pickup truck, on a 5,000-mile campaign odyssey through each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. Along the way, suffragists used it as a prop when urging voters to approve a state referendum granting women the vote. (The referendum failed.) When Congress ratified the 19th amendment in 1920, the Suffrage Bell’s clapper finally was unchained and it rang out in celebration, sounding once for each U.S. state.
Fashion & Art
In 1913, the women who marched in Washington had all donned pure white dresses to display the purity of their goal, as well as the fact that they remained feminine. In addition, wearing the color yellow (especially accented by blue or purple) indicated suffragist sympathies.
For decades, suffrage opponents had expressed their ridicule in political cartoons. By the 1910s, artists turned the tables and replaced mocking stereotypes of hysterical females with images of frivolous or selfish and smug anti-suffragists. Works by artists like Nina Allender showed women in control of their own lives—savvy and still elegant, but willing to fight for their rights. A 1916 cartoon in The Crisis, the magazine published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, showed a Black woman preparing to defend her fellow Black Americans of both genders against segregation while brandishing a bat representing the U.S. Constitution.
Silver Screen Suffragism
Women also turned to the newfangled motion picture industry to help make their case. Ruth Medill McCormick, daughter of a U.S. senator and wife of the Chicago Tribune’s publisher, financed and helped produce a dramatic film to illustrate the woes of women denied basic rights—including the vote. Such a film, she and her collaborators hoped, would be to women’s suffrage what the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been to abolition, motivating moviegoers to take up a cause.
Your Girl and Mine debuted in late 1914. After its protagonist Rosalind marries for love, she discovers that her new husband is a brutal drunk and wastrel. Denied a divorce by state laws, Rosalind flees with her children, but it’s only because she seeks refuge in a state that grants women the right to vote that she’s acquitted of the crime of abducting them. Her husband gets his just desserts (murdered by a woman he is beating), and Rosalind happily remarries a pro-suffrage politician. The movie did sway some viewers, with one reviewer concluding that “if women are capable of earning their living, they are capable of having the ballot.”
WATCH: The 19th Amendment
Pro-suffrage protests grew in number, intensity and creativity in the decade leading up to the passage of the 19th amendment. In 1918, when the Senate failed to ratify the first national suffrage bill, a group of protesters dubbed the “Silent Sentinels” donned black mourning armbands. In Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square that December, suffragists commemorated the Boston Tea Party by burning any books, speeches or papers written by President Wilson in which he used the words “freedom” or “democracy.” The protesters welcomed in the New Year by lighting the first “Watchfire of Freedom” in a Grecian urn just outside the White House, kindled using wood from a tree on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall. When counter-protesters tried to extinguish the blaze, other women rushed to relight the fire and guard it. Eventually, the women added an effigy of the president they called “Kaiser Wilson” to the fire.