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Document Deep Dive: A Historic Moment in the Fight for Women’s Voting Rights

A cartoonist diagrammed the parade—5,000 suffragists strong—that defiantly marched in Washington 100 years ago

In the spring of 1913, women in six states had the right to vote in all elections: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington and California. Despite these successes, though, the momentum of the 65-year-old suffrage movement was slowing. It was like a car running on fumes.

Alice Paul decided to give it some gas. Having recently returned to the States from England, where she cut her teeth as a suffragist, the 28-year-old New Jersey native pitched an idea to the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She would organize a suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., strategically timed with the influx of crowds arriving for President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, to drum up support for the cause. NAWSA appointed Paul the chair of its Congressional committee and approved her plan, but made it clear that she would have to come up with the money for the parade on her own. 

Paul called upon her friend, Lucy Burns, a like-minded activist she met in London, and other recruits. In January 1913, the group set to work in a humble basement office in downtown Washington and, for three months, tirelessly fundraised. These coffers would cover the costs of parade floats and signs, booking speakers and printing thousands of programs.

Then, the women had to spread the word. Paul, fortunately, was a publicity machine. “The committee sent out letters and fliers to suffrage groups and others kinds of organizations in the States asking to send representatives to Washington to participate in the parade,” says Lisa Kathleen Graddy, a curator of political history at the National Museum of American History. “They held lots of parlor speaking meetings. They distributed handbills. They did about everything they could.”

On March 3, more than 5,000 participants from across the country ceremoniously marched a portion of the well-beaten inaugural parade path from the U.S. Capitol up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Treasury Building. So many spectators gathered along the route—about 500,000 according to newspaper accounts—that perhaps the president-elect himself, arriving to nearby Union Station for his swearing in the next day, felt snubbed. When Wilson stepped off the train that afternoon, one of his staff asked, “Where are all the people?” A police officer said, “Watching the suffrage parade.”

Some of the onlookers cheered, while others jeered, but, either way, the suffragists succeeded in their purpose, outlined in the official program, “to give expression to the nation-wide demand for an amendment to the United States Constitution enfranchising women.” The event, many historians argue, reinvigorated the suffrage movement and helped to propel the nation towards the 19th Amendment’s ratification on August 18, 1920.

I recently spoke with Graddy about an illustration of the parade that the New York Evening Journal published the following day, March 4, 1913. The document, now held at the Library of Congress, diagrams the highly organized procession and, in doing so, sheds some light on the efforts it took to orchestrate.

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