Yogi Berra once said, “It’s Deja Vu all over again!” That was exactly how the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association (TPSMA) felt when it learned of the Women’s March on Washington, held on January 21, 2017, as it reflected on and compared it to the D.C. suffrage parade of 1913. The purpose of this grassroots rally and procession was to send a bold message to the fresh administration on its first day in office and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. Participants stood together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us to be treated equally. The TPSMA’s mission includes remaining vigilant in the quest for equal rights; participation in the march was inevitable.
The first march for equal rights ever held in D.C. was staged and orchestrated by the powerful National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) on March 3, 1913, the day prior to Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Suffragist Alice Paul, a brilliant strategist who understood the power of media attention, wanted to unequivocally announce to Woodrow Wilson’s administration that there was important new energy in the suffrage ranks.
The parallels between the two marches are uncanny and presumably some symbolism was deliberate: marching the day prior/after a presidential inauguration to bring equality causes to the new administrations’ attention, protesting in the shadow of the nation’s Capitol, organizing each event in a matter of weeks, including significant male participation, wearing costumes to garner attention and carrying signs to accentuate one’s cause. Demonstrators for both events were comprised of every race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, economic status, age or disability.
In 1913 marchers came from all over the world to participate particularly countries where women had already gained voting rights. In 2017, nearly 5 million stood together in 673 sister-city marches all over the United States and throughout the world in solidarity with those assembled in Washington, DC. It was epic – a global protest for equal rights.
The TPSMA contingent on the 21st was comprised of about a dozen men and women. Several were dressed in suffragist period attire, most wore Votes for Women sashes and carried numerous signs that were voting-related. We were pleasantly surprised to see dozens of marchers dressed in suffragist garb both in person in D.C. as well as on the 11 o’clock news that broadcast clips of sister marches. This bolstered TPSMA’s resolve to ensure that a proper, national memorial be erected to honor and commemorate the millions of women who fought over seven decades to win the vote – enfranchisement: step one toward equality for women.
Attending the march was an emotional, fulfilling, awe-inspiring experience. Trying to explain the aura is like trying to explain what the Grand Canyon looks like – you had to have been there. In the morning, every Metro station was jam-packed with thousands of riders headed into Washington. In fact, it was the second highest ridership in Metro’s history. Over 1,200 buses carried the faithful from as far away as Alaska. We met and spoke to dozens on our train who had come from all over the world. Spirits were high, the mood festive knowing we were making history. Traveling from several different Metro stations our group disembarked at the Smithsonian stop on the Mall where we rendezvoused at 8 a.m.
The rally included 50 speakers and entertainers beginning at 10 a.m. from an elevated stage at Independence Avenue and 3rd Street. There were several jumbotrons strategically located all along Independence; we made it to 6th Street. The crowd continued to swell throughout the day from hundreds of thousands to nearly a million. Beginning at 1:30 the march was to kick off on Independence and culminate on the ellipse. The crowd, weary from standing many hours, began to get restless and by 2:30 chants of March! March! March! rose up making the round of voices mirror “doing the wave” in a sports arena.
The problem, of course, was that the organizers had told the National Park Service they expected 250,000 protesters and four times that many showed. We human sardines couldn’t fathom the extent of gridlock in which we found ourselves. There was simply no room to march anywhere – the entire parade route and the National Mall were packed with wall-to-wall people!
Hundreds of porta potties left over from the prior day’s inauguration lined the side streets, but it was impossible to get to them. Other than BYO, there was no food and nothing to drink. In spite of these trying conditions, the crowd was exceptionally well behaved making way for scores of wheelchairs and dozens of strollers. There was not one single incident of unruliness; respect for each other – regardless of one’s platform – was the order of the day. The bored police officers obliged marchers and took dozens of group photos to capture and memorialize this historic event.
In 1913, the suffrage procession of nearly 8,000 was not so fortunate. The onlookers consisted of nearly a half million men in town for Wilson’s inauguration. Many were drunk and rowdy and surged into the street until they had surrounded and completely blocked the parade. Men grabbed at the women, tearing at their clothing and ripping banners from their hands. Some marchers were struck in the face and spat upon; vulgar, obscene, abusive language was hurled at them. The women attempted to fight their way forward, but the police refused to protect them; hundreds were injured and required medical attention. The Secretary of War called in the 15th Cavalry from Ft. Myer and the tenacious marchers triumphantly finished the parade.
These incredible suffragists deserve a national memorial to honor what they endured to win the vote. March is National Women’s History Month; please consider making a tax-deductible donation to TPSMA. You can donate electronically on our website www.suffragistmemorial.org or send a check payable to TPSMA to 5400 Ox Road, Fairfax Station, VA 22039. For a minimum of $1,000 you can have your name or someone you wish to memorialize inscribed on the Donor Wall. Contact Ex. Dir. Pat Wirth for