The Real Women’s Suffrage Milestone That Just Turned 100

4 minute read

They came on horses and carriages. They marched on foot. There were old women with canes and young mothers with babies. They dressed in white and carried banners with phrases like “A vote for suffrage is a vote for justice” and “You trust us with the children; trust us with the vote.” It was Oct. 23, 1915, and tens of thousands of women flooded Fifth Avenue in a spectacular, five-mile suffrage parade that all but shut down New York City.

The parade looked triumphant, but was actually a fraught and nervous event. New York State was about to have a referendum vote on whether to allow women the vote. Women didn’t yet have the ability to vote nationally, but 13 states had already enfranchised women. Progressive New York seemed on the verge of changing its mind about whether women belonged in the polls. Despite signs of political progress, there was a lot riding on the assembly. Organizers knew the parade had to go off without a hitch to garner the needed support for the vote. This was the high-profile chance suffragists had been waiting for—but the march didn’t quite go as expected.

By this point, suffragists were tired of being portrayed as fire-starting militants and misguided housewives. This parade was their chance to showcase their beauty and appeal in what one historian would call a spectacle “as well choreographed and rehearsed as a Broadway extravaganza.” They gathered delegates from labor unions and suffrage groups from around the world. Line after line of women marched up the avenue, holding hands, festooned with garlands and flowers and hoisting huge signs. A highlight was a small group of women who carried ballot boxes on a stretcher.

And people took notice. “In golden sunlight and keen air the great parade went its triumphal way,” wrote The New York Times the day after the parade. Onlookers cheered endless rows of demure women in white dresses, “more poem than procession.” There was even a breastfeeding mother in the marching lines, a “fine Junoesque woman of the finest mother type” who was cheered by onlookers along the entire route.

But in a way, the very order and beauty of the parade backfired. Women reading newspapers in the days that followed were more likely to see coverage of things like the parade’s hats, costumes, dogs—confusion over whether dogs could march in the parade was apparently resolved the day before—and of the reactions of male onlookers than they were to find thoughtful conversations about whether it was time to give New York women the vote. One women’s-wear publication even focused on the marching women as shoppers, not legitimate protesters, explaining that “the ballot was uppermost, of course, but shopping rarely is far from a woman’s mind.”

The parade was the peak of a series of grand suffrage parades in the city—spectacles that had gone from boos, threats and police action to dignified, entertaining events that showed the might and maturity of a women’s movement that was ready to vote. Official counts of the parade ranged from around 25,000 to well over 60,000, with at least 100,000 spectators stepping away from work and play to acknowledge the sheer magnitude of the national movement for women’s rights.

In four years, the 19th Amendment would grant all American women the right to vote. But New York’s spectacular suffrage parade didn’t achieve its goal. Just weeks later, the referendum failed. It would be two more years before New York suffragists would manage to convince their fellow citizens to let them vote in their own state, but the parade left an impression on both the city and its onlookers. In the words of Henry J. Allan, a Kansas newspaper editor who watched the parade expecting to see a joke, “It was absolutely overwhelming. Forty thousand women do not spend days getting ready for a five-mile march through crowded streets, and hours marching in a raw afternoon, for a transitory whim. It was the most democratic exhibition I have ever seen in New York.”

13 Great American Suffragettes

Evangelist and Reformer Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), pictured circa 1880. Truth, whose legal name was Isabella Van Wagener, was born into slavery but later freed. She worked as an abolitionist, suffragette, and evangelist. She was well known for the speech "Ain't I a Woman?" that she delivered at the 1851 Women's Rights Convention.Corbis
Lucy Stone circa 1860s
Lucy Stone (1818-1893), pictured circa 1860s.Stone, the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree, was an abolitionist and suffrage supporter. She helped plan the first U.S. Women's Rights Convention in 1850.Fotosearch—Getty Images
Portrait of American feminist Victoria Claflin Woodhull, circa 1872.
Victoria Claflin Woodhull (1838-1927), pictured circa 1872.Woodhull ran against Ulysses S. Grant in the 1872 presidential election, as the Equal Rights Party candidate.Corbis
Writer Julia Ward Howe circa 1890s.
Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), pictured circa 1890s.Howe, a poet and heiress, wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic. She was an editor of the suffragist paper The Woman's Journal.Corbis
Suffragist Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), seated at her desk, December 1898.
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), pictured in 1898.Anthony, one of America's most famous suffrage supporters, spent the bulk of her life traveling the nation advocating for women's rights. She was one of the founders of the National Woman Suffrage Association.Corbis
Portrait of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1910.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), pictured in 1910.Stanton helped to organize the 1848 Women's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls and to write the Declaration of Sentiments, one of the founding documents of American women's rights.Universal History Archive—UIG via Getty Images
Carrie Chapman Catt (1849-1947), Suffragette taking part in New York parade.
Carrie Chapman Catt (1849-1947), taking part in a New York parade, in an undated photo.Catt was a leader of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and later founded of the League of Women Voters.Corbis
Suffragette Kate M. Gordon of Tennessee, 1914.
Kate M. Gordon (1861-1932), pictured in 1914.Gordon was a founder of the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference. She was, surprisingly enough, opposed to an Constitutional amendment giving women the vote; rather, she supported suffrage guarantees on a state level.Harris & Ewing Collection—Library of Congress
Alice Paul, American feminist, 1920.
Alice Paul (1885-1977), pictured in 1920.Paul was a founder, in 1916, of the National Woman's Party, a group that supported suffrage through federal channels rather than state action.Universal History Archive—UIG via Getty Images
Portrait of Ida B. Wells, 1920.
Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), pictured in 1920.In 1913, Wells founded a suffrage organization specifically for black women and worked to integrate the women's-rights movement.Chicago History Museum—Getty Images
Alva Ertskin Belmont
Alva Ertskin Belmont (1853-1933), pictured in 1910.Belmont, a socialite who came to the suffrage movement relatively late in life, was president of the National Woman's Party and a founder of the Political Equality League. She also provided great financial support for the movement.Corbis
American pacifist leader and former congresswoman Jeannette Rankin (1880 - 1973) addresses a rally at Union Square, New York, New York, September 1924.
Jeannette Rankin (1880 - 1973), pictured in 1924.Rankin was the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress, after her efforts with the National American Woman Suffrage Association led to statewide suffrage in Montana.FPG—Getty Images
Minnie Fisher Cunningham who has announced her candidacy for the US Senate from Texas. She is a Democrat, and is now in Washington instructing members of the Women's National Democratic Club in politics, August 5, 1927.
Minnie Fisher Cunningham (1882-1964), pictured in 1927.Cunningham, who traced her involvement in the suffrage movement to inequality in pay, was a four-term president of the Texas Woman Suffrage Association and was instrumental in persuading Western states to ratify the 19th Amendment. She ran for Senate unsuccessfully in 1928, but remained active in politics for the rest of her life.Bettmann—Corbis

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