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An anniversary to cherish: The Island link to women’s suffrage

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS Inez Milholland preparing to lead the March 3, 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C.
Inez Milholland preparing to lead the March 3, 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C.

There’s a Shelter Island connection between the fight for women’s suffrage in New York State, passed 100 years ago on August 18, 1917, and in the United States as a whole in 1920.

The link is Inez Milholland, known as “The Woman on the White Horse,” who led one of the first mass demonstrations for the cause in 1913 wearing a long, white cape atop a white steed.

The image of Ms. Milhollands’ remarkable appearance inspired millions of Americans, and still does to this day. The iconic image was seen by demonstrators at the Women’s March in Washington in January.

The heroic equestrienne was born in 1886 in Brooklyn to a wealthy family who summered on Shelter Island and belonged to the Shelter Island Yacht Club. The 1910 tax rolls listed Ms. Milholland’s father as the owner of seven large, contiguous lots on the western side of the Island.

She attended Vassar College and during a stay in London the summer after her sophomore year met the legendary British suffragette leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of The Women’s Social and Political Union.

In 1999, Time magazine named Ms. Pankhurst one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. She died only days before the British parliament granted women the right to vote. Ms. Milholland had the same fate, dying before she could exercise the franchise she had so vigorously fought for.

During her time at Vassar, a college where all suffrage activities were forbidden by its male president, Ms. Milholland succeeded in radicalizing almost the entire student population. After graduation, she went to law school at New York University, recieving her degree in 1912 and began to practice labor law.

She had been refused admission at both Yale and Harvard because of her gender.

Ms. Milholland soon met Lucy Burns and Alice Paul, women active in the suffrage movement in Britain and the United States. The three women bonded immediately. Ms. Milholland had participated in her first suffrage parade in 1911 and then again in 1912, both in New York. She had held a sign that read “Forward out of error / Leave behind the night,/ Forward through the darkness,/ Forward into light.”

The following year Ms. Paul began planning another parade in Washington to continue the fight for women’s rights on the day before President Woodrow Wilson was to be inaugurated. It was her idea to have Ms. Milholland lead the march astride a white horse.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS Alice Paul in Washington, D.C. on August 17, 1920, toasting Tennessee's ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Alice Paul in Washington, D.C. on August 17, 1920, toasting Tennessee’s ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The parade on March 3, 1913 was such a huge event that when President Wilson arrived in the morning at the Washington railroad station, only a small, official Democratic Party group was there to meet him. Everyone else, as the organizers had hoped, was on Pennsylvania Avenue, watching the parade.

It was Ms. Paul’s hope that the parade would send a clear and coherent message to the new president, that the demand for suffrage was serious and had widespread support.

More than 8,000 women marched, with 26 floats and 10 bands, and more than 500,000 people gathered along the parade route up Pennsylvania Avenue, the same route the inauguration parade would follow.

It wasn’t long before insults and objects were hurled at the marchers and at the floats, many of which had small children participating. Police looked the other way and did little when bands of angry men pushed through the rope lines and attacked the marchers.

Finally, the 15th U.S. Cavalry was summoned and restored some sense of order. Close to 175 ambulances had responded and over 200 people were injured. Blame was placed on Major Richard Sylvester, who was subsequently fired as D.C. superintendent of police, and a special Senate investigation was  ordered.

Ms. Paul requested a meeting with the president, “before the bruises faded,” as she said, and it was granted. On March 17, Ms. Paul and Ms. Burns led a delegation, which included Ms. Milholland, to meet with President Wilson.

At the meeting he maintained, not quite truthfully, that the issue of suffrage was “new” to him and that he needed time “to educate himself.”

What the meeting did demonstrate clearly for the women in attendance, was that they would have to dedicate significant resources if they wished to move the White House toward their point of view.

Within a short time, three separate resolutions in favor of women’s suffrage had been introduced and were under consideration in the Senate Rules Committee, and although no action was taken, this was a victory; it had been more than 30 years since the word “suffrage” had been mentioned in either house of Congress.

The movement suffered a significant loss in November 1916 when Ms. Milholland collapsed while campaigning in California and was rushed to a hospital. Diagnosed with “pernicious anemia,” she died after several treatments were attempted but failed. She was 30 years old.

Her last public words before she lost consciousness at the podium were, “Mr. President! How long must women wait for liberty?” In her honor, these words were emblazoned on flags, banners and buttons throughout the subsequent years of struggle.

The loss was especially bitter for her comrade in the struggle, Ms. Paul, who had pleaded with her to go west to campaign for the cause, despite Ms. Milholland’s complaints of “exhaustion.” Ms. Milholland’s sister, Vida, also a Shelter Island Yacht Club member, joined the movement, and went to jail for three days in late 1917.

Many others were imprisoned for acts of civil disobedience and suffered greatly. Ms. Paul was incarcerated for months, force-fed daily for long periods of time, denied visitation rights and when she was transferred to a psychiatric facility, her whereabouts were kept secret. The integrity of the psychiatrists examining her, who refused to find her insane, is noteworthy.

In August 1917, suffrage became the law in New York State.

Many of the histories of suffrage use the phrase “When women were given the right to vote …” It should be noted that in no single instance were women “given” anything.

Rather, in almost every instance, women had to fight relentlessly for that right, often for years, struggling against almost overwhelming odds. For decades, they were ignored by presidents, blocked by Congress and derided by politicians.

It’s an old truism: Power is rarely shared voluntarily. Inez Milholland, on her white horse, marched into history understanding that human rights have to be fought for to be gained.