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The valiant Inez Milholland, standard-bearer in the nation’s struggle for female enfranchisement, is portrayed here by Isabella Serrano. (Jeanine Michna-Bales)

Recreating a Suffragist’s Campaign Through the American West

Inez Milholland Boissevain’s barnstorming tour to win the vote for women inspires a dramatic homage a century later

Smithsonian Magazine
SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE | July 2020

On October 4, 1916, Inez Milholland Boissevain, a 30-year-old lawyer and suffragist, boarded a train in New York City, bound for Cheyenne, Wyoming. Capital of the first Western state to grant women the right to vote, it would be one stop in a whirlwind, month-long speaking tour scheduled to take her to roughly 30 cities, including Pocatello, Idaho and Sacramento, California.

Milholland's journey mapped out
Milholland’s journey (her route embroidered onto a 1916 map by photographer Michna-Bales) began in New York City and covered some 12,000 miles. From Chicago to Los Angeles, she kept a grueling pace, delivering more than 50 speeches in eight states over 28 days, in settings from railroad cars to grand hotels. (Jeanine Michna-Bales)
Milholland portrait and re-enactor on train
Left, writing to fellow activists, Milholland described the garb she had worn in a 1911 New York City suffragist parade: “The star of hope” symbolized “the free woman of the future.” Right, before catching a 3 a.m. connection to Reno, Milholland stopped in Winnemucca, Nevada. “This is the time to fight,” she declared. (John Tepper Marlin / Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr. / Library of Congress; Jeanine Michna-Bales)

Milholland set out at a critical juncture for the movement. Despite a groundswell of support nationwide, President Woodrow Wilson, seeking re-election that November, had delayed full endorsement of women’s right to vote. Milholland and her fellow suffragists were now appealing directly to women in 11 Western states where they had already won the ballot, asking them to cast protest votes against Wilson. “This is the time to demonstrate our sisterhood, our spirit, our blithe courage and our will,” Milholland told the audiences that packed theaters and halls along her route.

Ticket and Staging in Dallas Theatre
Left, when she rode into the heart of Great Falls, Montana, from the train station, Milholland was met by a “welcoming committee in twenty automobiles,” one news report said. Right, the Reno theater where Milholland addressed a crowd has been demolished. The photographer staged the scene at a similar historic venue in Dallas. (Jeanine Michna-Bales)
In Virginia City, Nevada, Milholland’s arrival attracted about 500 people who were summoned to her rousing speech by fire department alarms, school bells and whistles that usually marked shift changes at the local mine.
In Virginia City, Nevada, Milholland’s arrival attracted about 500 people who were summoned to her rousing speech by fire department alarms, school bells and whistles that usually marked shift changes at the local mine. (Jeanine Michna-Bales)
Bodice and Flowers diptych
Left, wearied by the pace, Milholland admitted to reporters in Oregon: “I cannot see how I keep going, but I just have to.” Right, well-wishers commonly greeted Milholland with flowers. A vintage-styled bouquet in Glenns Ferry, Idaho. (Jeanine Michna-Bales)

“Inez was a spitfire,” says Jeanine Michna-Bales, who recreated the suffragist’s journey for a new book and forthcoming traveling exhibition, Standing Together: Photographs of Inez Milholland’s Final Campaign for Women’s Suffrage. “She believed in equal rights for men and women. She was determined not to fail.”

Dallas-based Michna-Bales combines documentary photography with historical re-enactment to make the past feel more alive. In Milholland, she found the ideal subject for commemorating the centennial of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving American women the right to vote. During the course of a year, Michna-Bales retraced Milholland’s cross-country odyssey. She found that while many of the theaters where Milholland had spoken had long since been torn down, other locations, where Michna-Bales was able to set up the tableaux she photographed, were still standing, including historic hotels and small-town train depots. And many of the mountain, prairie and desert landscapes—where the “sunset splashed the mountains and river with crimson,” as Milholland described a route to Oregon in letters to her husband in New York City, Eugen Boissevain—appeared little changed.

A re-enactor named Tamara Bridges Rothschild and a gaggle of costumed extras reprise the suffragist’s whistlestop in Cut Bank, Montana.
A re-enactor named Tamara Bridges Rothschild and a gaggle of costumed extras reprise the suffragist’s whistlestop in Cut Bank, Montana. (Jeanine Michna-Bales)
In Portland, Oregon, Milholland declared: “You women must assert yourselves, if you are to help reshape the world.”
In Portland, Oregon, Milholland declared: “You women must assert yourselves, if you are to help reshape the world.” (Jeanine Michna-Bales)

But as Milholland maintained her grueling pace, she was growing increasingly ill. A chronic condition, pernicious anemia, was aggravated by the campaign. Milholland collapsed mid-speech in Los Angeles on October 23 and died there a month later.

Milholland said she was often nervous before appearing in public, despite her careful preparations. The suffragist spoke at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, a Gilded Age landmark.
Milholland said she was often nervous before appearing in public, despite her careful preparations. The suffragist spoke at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, a Gilded Age landmark. (Jeanine Michna-Bales)
Newspaper Clippings and Antique Vials
Left, Western newspapers documented what would be Milholland’s final appearances. In Los Angeles, she collapsed—“like a wilted white rose”—according to press reports. Right, antique vials of arsenic and strychnine, collected by the photographer, represent the harmful and largely useless remedies Milholland was treated with. In letters home, though, she asserted gamely that “I shall come back to you stronger.” (Jeanine Michna-Bales)

Milholland would become a potent symbol, a martyr to the cause and an inspiration to the two million members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. They would fight on until August 1920, when Tennessee became the final state to ratify the 19th Amendment.

Amy Crawford About the Author: Amy Crawford is a Michigan-based freelance journalist writing about cities, science, the environment, art and education. A longtime Smithsonian contributor, her work also appears in CityLab and the Boston Globe. Read more articles from Amy Crawford and
About the Author: Jeanine Michna-Bales is a Dallas-based conceptual fine art photographer exploring relationships between past and present. Her photo essay on the American women's suffrage movement, "Standing Together," will be released this fall as a publication and traveling exhibition. Read more articles from Jeanine Michna-Bales

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