1913: A Beginning More Modern Than Intended

Troops marching into Washington for Wilson's inauguration (Courtesy Library of Congress)

A hundred years ago today, excitement gripped Washington, as crowds flooded the capital in anticipation of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration the next day.

Wilson’s swearing-in marked an unlooked-for turn in American politics.  As an intellectual, a Democrat, and a Southerner, Wilson promised to introduce a national tone quite different than what the US under Taft, his Republican successor, had been used to hearing.  It was a jubilant development for the Democrats, whose victory owed much to divisions within the Republican Party, which had split apart into conservative and progressive wings, aligned around Taft and Theodore Roosevelt respectively.

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Wilson, who strove to present himself as a reformer and people’s champion, understood the value of publicity.  Preparations for his inaugural were elaborate and included a kind of triumphal procession toward Washington beginning from his birthplace in Staunton, Virginia.  Every aspect of the undertaking was heavily publicized, including the stringing of electric lights along Pennsylvania Avenue, which was breathtakingly modern at the time.

Pennsylvania Avenue strung with lights for Wilson's inauguration (Courtesy Library of Congress)

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There was just one complication Wilson hadn’t given much thought to.  His idea of political progress didn’t include the ladies, who he believed shouldn’t vote, lest they become “unsexed” and manly.  So, for months, mainly beyond his consciousness, a feminine maelstrom of discontent had been brewing.

Captains of the women's suffrage parade (Courtesy Library of Congress via the Commons on Flickr))

A young college graduate named Alice Paul and her fellow activists were intent on organizing a vast suffrage parade, to take place in the capital on March 3, the day before Wilson’s inauguration, stealing his thunder and symbolically following the same route to power as he.

After three months of frantic planning, Paul and her committee had raised $14,908.06 in funds (at a time when the average yearly wage was $621), mobilized thousands of like-minded women all over the country, and laid the groundwork for a parade with floats, delegations, and an allegorical pageant to be performed on the steps of the Treasury Building.

Women en route to the suffrage parade (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Women from all over donned protest garb and walked, rode, and sailed to take part in the great Woman Suffrage Parade.  There were delegations from Europe, marchers from places like Chicago, Oklahoma, New York, and Ohio, and women from all walks of life.  They bore colorful banners and distributed lavishly expensive programs trumpeting the day’s official proceedings.

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In the hours before the commencement of the parade, the capital’s streets became choked with people, as skeptical men and more than 5,000 female demonstrators and their allies arrived.

Police were unprepared to deal with the dense masses of spectators and protestors.  Authorities viewed the effort dismissively.  They had not planned to clear the streets, imagining that the sidewalks would suffice for a ladies’ parade.  The streetcars were still running, as pandemonium brewed.

Pandemonium before the suffrage parade

Finally, the streets were cleared and the parade began.  The suffragettes marched several blocks unimpeded, but gradually men began surging into the street, making it almost impossible for the women to pass.  The mood turned ugly and openly insulting.  Marchers struggled to get past the hecklers, their path reduced to a single file.  The men were emboldened by the police, who refused to protect the marchers and instead joined in their humiliation.  Helen Keller, who was among the marchers, found the experience profoundly enervating and exhausting.  Nearly 100 of the marchers were hospitalized.

The chief of police, realizing too late how he had miscalculated, called on Secretary of War Harold Stimson to send out an infantry regiment to restore order and control the crowd.  In the wake of the Congressional inquiries that followed, that police chief would lose his job.

Wilson’s arrival in town was barely noticed that day.  His inauguration, though orderly, was eclipsed by the more truly electrifying Suffrage Parade.  The bold strategies of Alice Paul and her sisters succeeded brilliantly, breathing new life into women’s quest for the vote, a goal they would finally achieve in 1920.

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress.

8 responses

  1. Wonderful post, Susan! I love the photos, and the topic is so important. (I also love Mrs. Burelson’s hat and her outfit in general!)

  2. This is just an amazing post, Susan. What a gripping story and that photo of Penn. Ave. lit up. All of this so timely too given what’s going on in Congress re the Voting Rights Act. Thank you for a great story.

    • Thanks for the kind words, spencebarry. The centennial of the suffrage parade does seem to have fallen at a timely moment, both with respect to challenges to voting rights and to the unrealized dream for full civic equality. . . to think we still need a law to procure for women equal work for equal pay astonishes me. . . Thanks again, SB

  3. Well researched article ! The pictures are great–especially of the newly wired Pennsylvania Ave.

  4. The night scenes are amazing, given the time period. ‘Course the lights and things aren’t so unusual nowadays but that’s one scene I’d like to have seen in person. Thanks for sharing!

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