More than one hundred years ago, as Washington, D.C. prepared for the March 4, 1913 inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, a group of women determined to march for their right to vote descended upon the city, prompting some to wonder what, exactly, they were on about.
Organized by leading suffrage activist Alice Paul (you might know her as the one who went on a hunger strike, only to be force-fed in the psychiatric ward of a Virgina prison), the parade and rally, staged on March 3, 1913, drew a crowd of more than 5,000 women (plus some 70 members of the National Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, and a bunch of hecklers, and people in town for the inauguration). A breathless New York Times account of the parade published the next day set the scene:
Imagine a Broadway election night crowd, with half the shouting and all of the noise-making novelties lacking; imagine that crowd surging forward constantly, without proper police restraint, and one gains some idea of the conditions that existed along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the Treasure Department this afternoon. Ropes stretched to keep back the crowds were broken in many places and for most of the distance the marcerhs had to walk as best they could through a narrow lane of shouting spectators. It was necessary many times to call a halt while the mounted escort and the policemen pushed the crowd back.
In the allegory presented on the Treasury steps it saw a wonderful series of dramatic pictures. In the parade over 5,000 women passed down Pennsylvania Avenue. Some were riding, more were afoot. Floats throughout the procession illustrated the progress in the woman’s suffrage cause had made in the last seventy-five years. Scattered throughout the parade were the standards of nearly every State in the Union.
Despite their numbers and enthusiasm, the ladies and their supporters were not without adversaries:
The procession, it was charged, had not gone a block before it had to halt. Crowds, the women said, had gathered about one woman and her aids, and drunken men had attempted to climb upon the floats. Insults and jibes were shouted at women marchers, and for more than an hour confusion reigned.
Still, the event was considered a success by most who attended, save one famous figure:
Miss Helen Keller, the noted deaf and blind girl, was so exhausted and unnerved by her experience in attempting to reach a grand stand, where she was to have been a guest of honor, that she was unable to speak later at Continental Hall.
More from Smithsonian.com
Document Deep Dive: A Historic Moment in the Fight for Women’s Voting Rights
Suffragette City: The March That Made and Changed History in DC Turns 100
Seven Ways to Celebrate Women’s History Month
Equal Say: A Photographic History of How Women Won the Vote