Women's Suffrage - Why I am Wearing White on Election Day
Inez Milholland Boissevain
An Election of Firsts
The 2016 Election in the United States is a historically significant year. Although free elections are commonplace in American society and serve as the bedrock foundation of American values, this election year is particularly unique for a number of reasons. Hillary Clinton represents the Democratic Party and, if elected, would be the first female president. Every president in American history has had prior political experience (senators, governors, vice-presidents, congressmen, cabinet member, etc.) or prior military experience (generals or other military officer). Clinton's Republican opponent, Donald Trump, would be the first to break that mold if he were successful.
Clinton was not necessarily ever viewed as a fashion icon; some may say that her wardrobe over the years was a bit awkward - dotted with periods of headbands and conservative suits and sometimes matronly gowns. But during her presidential campaign, she is known for her stylish Armani or Ralph Lauren pantsuits. Then at the Democratic National Convention after several speakers wore white attire, Clinton appeared in a white Ralph Lauren suit. I'm sure I am not the only person lost in a fashion moment rather than a political message her suit was sending. But then it clicked. The Suffragists. For her first debate, forget the stereotypically masculine red power tie, she wore a red suit. The second debate called for the next patriotic color, blue (and white). I made a notation in my head about the patriotic colors in succession. At the third debate she appeared again in a white Lauren suit. The fashion journalists can talk about the color trend and how white can still be appropriate after Labor Day. But I thought about the tribute to the Suffragists.
In 1920, nearly 100 years ago (96 to be exact), women first exercised their right to vote in the United States. But for nearly 100 years before the amendment was ratified, women fought to be heard at the polls, for the right to be enfranchised and hold the benefit of full citizenship as equal to men.
The American Suffragists
Women's rights were placed on hold in the mid-1800s as the Abolitionist movement prioritized the end of slavery, the nation struggled with Civil War, the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, and Reconstruction. Voting rights for newly-freed African-American men took precedence.
Just four states afforded women the right to vote prior to 1910 - Wyoming (1869), Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), and Idaho (1896). (History, Art, and Archives. U.S. House of Representatives). Part of the challenges in expanding the right to vote stemmed from opposing visions by the women's organizations themselves - namely the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), focused toward changing federal law and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which advocated for building national momentum by focusing on the state level. Alice Paul, in 1914, then formed the National Women's Party. Incredibly enough, not unlike today, the greatest challenges were in mobilizing the base. Susan B. Anthony and Ida H. Harper cowrote, “In the indifference, the inertia, the apathy of women, lies the greatest obstacle to their enfranchisement.” In Women and the American Experience, historian Nancy Woloch described their efforts as “a crusade in political education by women and for women, and for most of its existence, a crusade in search of a constituency.” (Woloch).
Hedwig Reicher as Columbia
Alison Turnbull Hopkins
Parade Delegations Wore White
Although arguably the best way to demonstrate one's love for one's country is participate in the electoral process, the Suffragists were mocked, threatened, and criticized for being unpatriotic for their demands for equality and representation, particularly since the nation was embroiled in a war.
The first major national effort for the enfranchisement of women began with a parade in Washington D.C. on March 3, 1913, the day before President Woodrow Wilson's Inauguration. Organized by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, the parade consisted of 8,000 marchers, 9 bands, four mounted brigades, and 20 floats. (The Atlantic). The hallmark of the parade was a 27-year old suffragist and lawyer - Inez Milholland who strategically wore white - including a white, flowing cape, a crown on her head as she gracefully rode upon a white horse. (Vassar Encyclopedia). Milhullond was not the only suffragist in white that day. German actress Hedwig Reicher was splendidly dressed as "Columbia" surrounded by other suffrage pageant participants resplendent in white. Each delegation of women represented in the parade wore a significant color representing the occupations in which women were active: 400 business women marched in blue, six women representing clergy wore black gowns. (New York Times). Thirty-two African-American women from Howard University represented the educational division wearing academic regalia. Nurses wore uniforms. (Harvey). Artists wore pink; musicians wore red. Women lawyers, physicians, and actresses were represented; and the writers’ delegation wore white gowns. (New York Times).
The number of spectators continued to increase as the parade progressed; "Gen. John A. Johnson, a Commissioner of the District of Columbia, that 500,000 persons watched the women march for their cause." (New York Times). But the mob (mostly drunken men) ridiculed the marchers, tripped them, and assaulted them. Suffragists were subjected to insults, cursing, threats, and indignities. Police were indifferent to the marchers plight failed to protect them from mob assault. One police officer barked at Mrs. Genevieve Stone, wife of Representative Stone of Illinois: “If my wife were where you are I’d break her head.” By the end of the scene, more than 100 marchers were hospitalized. A major news story, outrage against the mob assault resulted in Congressional Hearings and the firing of the D.C. Police Superintendent.
Alice Paul and members of the NWP confronted President Wilson by picketing the White House demanding he support a federal suffrage amendment. A number of the suffragists were arrested and jailed, including Paul. Their inhumane conditions of confinement which included force feeding during a hunger strike served as embarrassment for the President who granted pardons to all. (Politicalarchives.com). Wilson eventually put his support behind the amendment as a "war measure" given the nation was embroiled in WWI and necessitated the support of women. (AlicePaul.org).
Picketing the White House
Current State of Affairs
My grandmother was two years old when the 19th Amendment was passed; and she is still alive and kicking. The fight for women's equality has been a ceaseless effort for the 100 years that followed the amendment.
Women alive today include those who recall a time where a wife was legally considered the property of her husband, which continued into the 1970s. We women have lived through a time where the law failed to provide a legal construct regarding marital rape or specifically exempted the husband from criminal prosecution for the act. North Carolina maintained such a law until 1993.
As late as 2003, in 20 states, it still was not a crime for a husband to have nonconsensual sex with his wife. A culture of the failure to protect women under law from sexual violence coupled without a legal remedy for the termination of any resulting pregnancy led to the deaths of a multitude of women who sought illegal and dangerous abortions.
Women were not allowed the autonomy of obtaining sterilization procedures without the consent of their husbands as late as the 1990s while men could obtain a vasectomy at age 18 without the consent of any other person. In general, businesses still fail to pay women equal wages for the equal work of men. And of course, we have yet to have a woman as Vice-President of the United States, let alone as President of the United States.
In the United States, a woman is assaulted or beaten every nine seconds. Worldwide, at least one in every three women has been abused during her lifetime and "domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women" who are between the ages of 15 and 44. (Committee on the Judiciary). Studies have shown that approximately 10 million children per year witness domestic violence. In the United States, more than three women are murdered by their boyfriends or husbands every day. (Domestic Violence Statistics).
The epidemic of domestic violence in the United States exceeds $8.3 billion and health care costs of these victims can persist as long as 15 years after the cessation of abuse, according to the Center for Disease Control (Lugo). The dehumanization of women via second-class citizenship and violence in American society has wreaked havoc on families and the psyche of society. Dehumanization destroys hope, trust, self-worth and lives. Constitutional protections mean nothing without a government willing to enforce the law and secure the liberties, freedoms, and guarantees to humane treatment of all of its citizens. It is not enough to be tolerant or to embrace diversity; it is imperative to respect the sanctity of human life and embrace civility. (Lugo).
Me on Election Day
Wearing White to Pay Tribute
So, in light of all of the women who came before and fought and died for my right to vote, I'm wearing white on Election Day. To pay homage to the attorney who was denied admission to Harvard and Yale because she was a woman, for Inez Milholland and the other attorneys who made it possible for my own admission to law school, I will wear white on Election Day.
For the women who represented the writer's delegation at that amazing parade in 1913, who opened the doors for female authors - one of the most critical forms of exercising free speech, because they led the way for me to be able to write professionally, I will wear white on Election Day.
For the suffragists who went unprotected and their cries ignored by police officers on the day the mob attacked them and for the women whose cries continued to get ignored when they reported instances of domestic violence and abuse to authorities, I will wear white on Election Day.
For the women who lost their innocence in the course of sexual violence, I will wear white on Election Day. For the women who died during childbirth and labor, who could have been saved, I will wear white on Election Day. And for those women who have died at the hands of their abusers, I will wear white on Election Day.
Finally, in honor of the hundreds of thousands of military personnel and the civilians at home who spent 240 years fighting to maintain this Republic, free elections and holding steadfast to the creed, "All are created Equal and have the right to Equal Protection under the law," I am wearing white on Election Day. I hope other women will too.
Will you wear white on Election Day
Last edited on November 12, 2016.
AlicePaul.org. "Who Was Alice Paul." http://www.alicepaul.org/who-was-alice-paul/. Access date: 10/22/2014.
Domestic Violence Statistics. "Domestic Violence Statistics." 2013 http://domesticviolencestatistics.org/domestic-violence-statistics/. Access date: August 6, 2013.
Committee on the Judiciary. "Violence against Women, A Majority Staff Report." United States Senate, 102nd Congress, October 1992
Harvey, Sheridan. "Marching for the Vote: Remembering the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913." American Memory. Humanities and Social Sciences Division, Library of Congress. December 2001. http://www.legendsofamerica.com/ah-suffrageparade.html. Access date: 10/22/2014.
Lugo, Liza. How Do Hurricane Katrina's Winds Blow: Racism in 21st Century New Orleans. ABC-CLIO. 2014.
New York Times. "5,000 women march in a Woman’s Suffrage demonstration, beset by crowds." March 4, 1913. Available at: http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/woman-suffrage/5000-women-march/. Access date: 10/22/2014.
Politicalarchives.com. "Women's Suffrage." http://www.politicsarchive.com/womens-suffrage.html. Access date: 10/22/2014.
Taylor, Alan. The Atlantic. "100 Years Ago: the 1913 Women's Suffrage Parade." March 1, 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2013/03/100-years-ago-the-1913-womens-suffrage-parade/100465/. Access date: 10/22/2014.
U.S. House of Representatives. History, Art, and Archives. "The Women’s Rights Movement, 1848–1920." http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/WIC/Historical-Essays/No-Lady/Womens-Rights/. Access date: 10/22/2016.
Vassar Encyclopedia. "Inez Milholland." 2006. http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/alumni/inez-milholland.html. Access date: 10/22/2014.
Woloch, Nancy. Women and the American Experience. McGraw-Hill. (first published 1984) Quotes from 328; see also 329–336.