1913: A Beginning More Modern Than Intended

Troops marching into Washington for Wilson's inauguration (Courtesy Library of Congress)

A hundred years ago today, excitement gripped Washington, as crowds flooded the capital in anticipation of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration the next day.

Wilson’s swearing-in marked an unlooked-for turn in American politics.  As an intellectual, a Democrat, and a Southerner, Wilson promised to introduce a national tone quite different than what the US under Taft, his Republican successor, had been used to hearing.  It was a jubilant development 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.

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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.

Pennsylvania Avenue strung with lights for Wilson's inauguration (Courtesy Library of Congress)

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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.

Captains of the women's suffrage parade (Courtesy Library of Congress via the Commons on Flickr))

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 en route to the suffrage parade (Courtesy Library of Congress)

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.

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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.

Pandemonium before the suffrage parade

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.

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May Day Meditations

Chicago's May Day Parade along Jackson Boulevard (Credit: Susan Barsy)
I WAS RUSHING out of my office building the other day when I ran smack dab into a May Day parade.  It took me a minute to realize it wasn’t just another Occupy rally.  No, the date was the first of May, when, by tradition, workers around the world take to the streets en masse, their parades a vivid display of emotion and identity.

Chicago police watching the 2012 May Day parade (Credit: Susan Barsy)It was striking was how un-specific this demonstration was.  It didn’t have much to do with labor in particular or something specific workers might actually need.  It seemed to have more to do with how unfair life is—a general proposition we might all assent to.

Bystanders watching the Chicago May Day parade at Dearborn & Jackson (Credit: Susan Barsy)Seeing the marchers made me think about how much the nature of work and the status of workers in the US has changed over the decades, since May Day observances first began.  International Workers Day, as it is officially called, was instituted to mark the anniversary of the Haymarket disturbances in Chicago when, in 1886, violence erupted as police sought to dispel a crowd that had gathered to protest police brutality toward workers demonstrating for the eight-hour day.  Eight policemen were killed, an unknown number of protesters were killed and injured, and 4 probably innocent demonstrators were later hanged in what was one of the most infamous incidents in labor history.

May Day protesters in front of the Dearborn Street Post Office, Chicago (Credit: Susan Barsy)The heroic struggles of those earlier generations of workers were quite remarkable.  Their disciplined efforts brought about many important gains: the abolition of child labor, the minimum wage, safety inspections, the 40-hour week.  Without the labor movement, most of us would not have anything like the standard of living we enjoy today.  One has only to dip into Freidrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Classes in England or Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills or Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives to recall why their struggles were necessary.

Bits of that story are told in photographs such as these, preserved at the Library of Congress.

Children wearing sashes in Hebrew and English bearing the words "Abolish Child Slavery"These girls were photographed on May Day in New York City in 1909.  Their sashes bear the words “Abolish Child Slavery” in English and Yiddish.

African American protester in 1909 wearing a hat card with the words "Bread of Revolution"This protester was a member of the I.W.W. (International Workers of the World), also known as “the Wobblies.”  Wobblies believed in the international brotherhood of labor and dreamed of improving conditions of workers the world over.  A labor movement like that today would still have much to do.  Looking at this photo makes me think of some of the labor movement’s missed opportunities.

Photograph of female garment workers in NYC parade, 1919 (Courteay Library of Congress)
In good times and bad, May Day has inspired expressions of worker pride, as displayed in this wonderful photograph of female garment workers in 1919.  You would never guess from looking at these ladies how very punishing their occupation was.

Maybe that is one of the differences between that era and today: whereas, then, many workers suffered from conditions that were local and immediate, the costs global capitalism inflicts on American workers are more abstract and harder to see.

There was a great deal to ponder in even a fleeting glimpse of a modern May Day parade.

Additional information regarding Library of Congress images:
here and here and here