Wilson’s swearing-in marked an unlooked-for turn in American politics. As an intellectual, a Democrat, and a Southerner, he promised to introduce a national tone quite different than what the US had been used to under his Republican predecessor, William Taft. Wilson’s election was a heady coup for the Democrats, whose victory owed much to divisions within the Republican Party, which had split apart into conservative and progressive wings, aligned around Taft and Theodore Roosevelt respectively.
Wilson, who strove to present himself as a reformer and people’s champion, understood the value of publicity. Preparations for his inaugural were elaborate and included a kind of triumphal procession toward Washington beginning from his birthplace in Staunton, Virginia. Every aspect of the undertaking was heavily publicized, including the stringing of electric lights along Pennsylvania Avenue, which was breathtakingly modern at the time.
There was just one complication Wilson hadn’t given much thought to. His idea of political progress didn’t include the ladies, who he believed shouldn’t vote, lest they become “unsexed” and manly. So, for months, mainly beyond his consciousness, a feminine maelstrom of discontent had been brewing.
A young college graduate named Alice Paul and her fellow activists were intent on organizing a vast suffrage parade, to take place in the capital on March 3, the day before Wilson’s inauguration, stealing his thunder and symbolically following the same route to power as he.
After three months of frantic planning, Paul and her committee had raised $14,908.06 in funds (at a time when the average yearly wage was $621), mobilized thousands of like-minded women all over the country, and laid the groundwork for a parade with floats, delegations, and an allegorical pageant to be performed on the steps of the Treasury Building.
Women from all over donned protest garb and walked, rode, and sailed to take part in the great Woman Suffrage Parade. There were delegations from Europe, marchers from places like Chicago, Oklahoma, New York, and Ohio, and women from all walks of life. They bore colorful banners and distributed lavishly expensive programs trumpeting the day’s official proceedings.
In the hours before the commencement of the parade, the capital’s streets became choked with people, as skeptical men and more than 5,000 female demonstrators and their allies arrived.
Police were unprepared to deal with the dense masses of spectators and protestors. Authorities viewed the effort dismissively. They had not planned to clear the streets, imagining that the sidewalks would suffice for a ladies’ parade. The streetcars were still running, as pandemonium brewed.
Finally, the streets were cleared and the parade began. The suffragettes marched several blocks unimpeded, but gradually men began surging into the street, making it almost impossible for the women to pass. The mood turned ugly and openly insulting. Marchers struggled to get past the hecklers, their path reduced to a single file. The men were emboldened by the police, who refused to protect the marchers and instead joined in their humiliation. Helen Keller, who was among the marchers, found the experience profoundly enervating and exhausting. Nearly 100 of the marchers were hospitalized.
The chief of police, realizing too late how he had miscalculated, called on Secretary of War Harold Stimson to send out an infantry regiment to restore order and control the crowd. In the wake of the Congressional inquiries that followed, that police chief would lose his job.
Wilson’s arrival in town was barely noticed that day. His inauguration, though orderly, was eclipsed by the more truly electrifying Suffrage Parade. The bold strategies of Alice Paul and her sisters succeeded brilliantly, breathing new life into women’s quest for the vote, a goal they would finally achieve in 1920.
Images courtesy of the Library of Congress.