Inez Milholland: From Suffrage Celebrity to Women’s Rights Icon
In a recent article in the Washing Post, Diane Bernard wrote, “She was the glamorous face of suffrage. Then she became its martyr.”
Inez Milholland was draped in a white cape wearing a golden crown as her gallant white horse strutted down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital on March 3, 1913. The 26-yr.-old lawyer dubbed the “beautifulest” suffragist by the New York Tribune, braced herself against the cold March breeze as she led the long procession of women demanding the right to vote. Her horse, Grey Dawn, trotted so quickly that soon the 8,000 suffragists in costumes and on floats lagged several blocks behind her, according to “The Life and Times of Inez Milholland,” a biography of the trailblazer by Linda Lumsden.
“She projected power, bravery, and intelligence,” Lumsden said. “She cast women from victims to actors and gave the movement a modern face.” But as Milholland and Grey Dawn approached Fifth Street NW, a crush of drunken, rowdy men blocked her way.
The crowd surrounded Milholland and soon converged on the marchers, spitting on the women, hurling obscenities, and throwing lighted cigarettes and matches at them. Some even slapped women in the face, according to Senate hearings in the aftermath of the riot.
“There would have been nothing like this happen if you women would stay at home,” an officer snarled at one victim, according to The Washington Post.
Milholland soldiered on, using her horse to part the rioting men. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves,” she shouted. “If you have a particle of backbone you will come out here and help us to continue our parade.” Finally, after a delay, U.S. cavalry troops galloped in from Fort Myer and cleared a path for Milholland, and the parade continued on the nation’s most prominent and political thoroughfare.
It would take another seven years for women to win the right to vote. But Milholland wouldn’t live to celebrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Instead, she became the movement’s martyr.
She was a child of privilege, born in Brooklyn in 1886 to wealthy parents who were social reformers. Her father was a lifelong crusader against racism. Milholland attended Vassar, graduating in 1909, later entered New York University Law School and become an attorney in 1912. She worked on numerous progressive causes, the longest and most vocal was women’s suffrage. “She would get nervous before a speech, but she made herself do it,” said Lumsden, who studied the suffragist’s papers. “She was full of doubts about her abilities, but she would plunge ahead anyway.” It’s something that women still experience today.
Alice Paul, leader of the American Woman Suffrage Association, chose Miholland to lead the Washington parade procession to help publicize the cause. It worked. Milholland was as fierce and she was beautiful, demanding that black women from Howard University be allowed to march in the parade. Consensus across the nation was that violence at the parade was a national disgrace, as Senate hearings by 150 witnesses related chilling accounts of abuse.
In June, Paul founded a new suffrage organization called the National Women’s Party. She planned to send a “Suffrage Special” railroad car of female speakers to recruit members from Western states. Milholland’s father encouraged her to go on the trek and made a large donation to Paul. She agreed to have Milholland travel along. She got rave reviews on the trip despite her increasing physical weaknesses. She held standing-room-audiences rapt.
But her health was deteriorating. Finally on an October night in Los Angeles, she collapsed on stage. The doctor diagnosed aplastic anemia. On Nov. 25, 2016, Milholland died. Her last words from a recent speech became, “President Wilson, how long must women go on fighting for liberty?” That line became the suffragists’ battle cry.
Suffragists continued two more years of public protest, many in Milholland’s name, which elevated her from suffrage celebrity to women’ rights icon. Finally, after Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, the fight was over. American women had won the right to vote!