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, 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.

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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.

Florence and Margaret Make a Play for Freedom

American tennis player Florence Sutton, circa 1910 (Courtesy Library of Congress via the Commons on Flickr)

The athleticism of the women competing in the London Olympics—and their outfits—underscore how dramatically women’s dress and freedom have changed in the century since women like the American tennis great Florence Sutton began trail-blazing.

Sutton’s pioneering sportsmanship—and the achievements of other women in sports like golf and swimming—were striking indications of the liberties that Progressive Era women were intent on claiming.  Circa 1900, it was rare for a respectable woman to do anything but walk, ride, or ski, partly because women were expected to be so heavily clad and partly because they were never supposed to go out unaccompanied.

While poking around for more on Florence and early American sportswomen, I made a surprising discovery.  The first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal was Chicagoan Margaret Ives Abbott (1878-1955).  She won the Olympic competition in women’s golf in Paris in 1900.  Two years later, she became the wife of noted Chicago journalist Finley Peter Dunne.  Margaret was born in India, where her father had been a merchant, but was raised in Chicago, where her mother (also named Margaret Ives Abbott) wrote for the Trib and had a literary salon.

Apparently the Paris Olympics were run in an off-hand fashion, for during her lifetime Margaret was never fully aware of what she had won.  Only after her death did historians realize that her victory in what seemed to be just another golf tournament was actually part of the Olympic competition.  And she received a bowl, not a medal.

Image: Florence Sutton circa 1910, courtesy of the Library of Congress, from this source.

June 25, 2015:
Margaret Abbott’s granddaughter, Miranda Dunne Parry,
has kindly shared this recollection of Margaret, written by her father Philip Dunne
and published in
the August 1984 issue of Golf Digest.  Enjoy!

Related:
Library of Congress photograph
of the US international female tennis players in 1895.