Celebrating Women’s History: Women on the March

Hundreds of thousands of women marched on Washington, D.C., on inaugural weekend this year to voice their concerns about an array of issues. News outlets nationwide and overseas reported a massive turnout that exceeded all expectations. Crowd size aside, the march was not without precedent. More than a hundred years earlier, American women organized a march on Washington to coincide with a presidential inauguration.

On March 3, 1913, on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, the National American Woman Suffrage Association sponsored a procession to support enactment of a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote.

Official program for the March 1913 suffrage procession.

Official program for the March 1913 suffrage procession.

“We march today to give evidence to the world of our determination that this simple act of justice shall be done,” the official program stated. “We march that the world may realize that, save in six states, the newly-elected President has been chosen by only one-half of the people.” At the time, only six states enfranchised women.

The marchers rushed to organize in time for President Wilson’s inauguration because they knew press would be in town for the event. “We talk about how quickly the women’s march this past January got organized,” says Janice Ruth, assistant chief of the Manuscript Division, where many papers related to women’s suffrage reside. “Think about . . . December 1912, no Internet, not many people with telephones, and they were able to get the word out and assemble in Washington.” Between 5,000 and 8,000 women participated.

Crowd shot on Pennsylvania Avenue looking toward the Capitol. Photo by G.V. Buck.

Crowd shot on Pennsylvania Avenue looking toward the Capitol. Photo by G.V. Buck.

Lawyer Inez Milholland, the event’s “mounted herald,” led the procession astride a white horse, an image reflected on the cover of the official program. Behind her were groups of women organized by different categories, including occupation. Harriet Hifton of the Library of Congress Copyright Division led the librarians’ contingent.

The procession started out smoothly. But after a few blocks, the crowd began to encroach on the marchers, jeering, tripping and shoving the women. “Ambulances were making trips for six hours, taking women to the area hospitals,” Ruth says.

The women’s treatment by the onlookers resulted in indignation meetings across the country. A congressional inquiry was held, and the police superintendent for Washington, D.C., lost his job. “It certainly marked a shift in the American women’s suffrage movement at that point in time,” Ruth says. Before the march, suffrage organizers had been casting about for ways to reinvigorate support.

Within two weeks, marchers obtained an audience with President Wilson, and they had several more afterward. “Sadly,” however, “it took him about five years to come out publicly in support of women’s suffrage,” Ruth says. He did so in 1918.

Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote, on June 4, 1919. It was ratified on August 18, 1920, and become law on August 26.

The Library of Congress holds many collections related to women’s suffrage, including the records of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman’s Party, the Susan B. Anthony Collection and suffrage scrapbooks.

For a full recounting of the 1913 women’s march and links to additional materials, see “Marching for the Vote: Remembering the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913.”

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