Forward Into Light: A History of Marching Women

(Original Caption) American Suffragette parade in New York City, May 1912. Color Photograph. BPA 2 #6052

The below piece by Syreeta McFadden was published a year ago, one day before the 2017 Women’s March. 

The gold banner had these words stitched upon its face: “Forward, out of error. Leave behind the night. Forward through the Darkness. Forward into light.” The banner was often in the care of suffragist Inez Milholland who led multiple suffrage parades from 1911 through 1913. It was the adopted motto of the National Woman’s Party, one of many organizations leading the charge for the right to vote for women at the turn of the last century. Milholland, a Brooklyn-born lawyer, socialite and firebrand activist, had become one of the most prominent public faces of the movement. Seldom was there a march that didn’t include her face and inspiring voice. She died at age 30 before the constitutional amendment was ratified, but was considered the spirit guide and soul of the movement.


Women have long wielded their collective power by marching, transforming history in the process. In the fall of 1789 for example, dogged by a crushing economic crisis and rising bread costs, French women took to the streets and stormed the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, then marched the nearly two hours to Versailles to make demands of King Louis XVI. The French revolution was months old, the monarchy would officially fall three years later. Men joined mothers and wives without noble lineage, all unified in their cause to advance the revolution and topple the gluttonous monarchy.

Gold was one of three rich colors suffragists used at the turn of the twentieth century to build awareness around their cause. Gold was connected to enlightenment, a motif that signaled that the right for women to vote was morally true. Suffragists were brand experts and used all manner of trinkets and ribbons to promote their mission, the urgency of the female enfranchisement in the electoral process.

The first decade of the twentieth century saw technological and industrial growth after nearly four decades of rapid expansion of the American republic. Yet that expansion had its shadow: extreme wealth and extreme poverty, deep racial division codified by segregation laws and ordinances in both the South and the North, and violent clashes between striking workers and businessmen. Middle and upper class women pushed back against societal norms, carving out new, more autonomous roles. By the start of 1913, this generation of “New Women” had become part of the suffrage movement, and Milholland was the favorite daughter.

March 1913 Man Repeller

The 1913 Women’s March.

When Woodrow Wilson arrived at Union Station on March 3, 1913, the day before he was to be sworn in as the next American president, he was not greeted by an enthusiastic crowd of well-wishers but instead by spectators eager to watch the Suffrage parade, organized three months prior to coincide with his inauguration. A train from Illinois dubbed the “Manless Special” brought a delegation of 100 women to Washington, D.C. to join thousands of women nationwide. In total, 5,000 women descended on the nation’s capital to march. Wilson displayed reticence toward women’s suffrage the moment he took office, showing a deference for state rights before formally supporting women’s right to vote near the end of his presidency in 1917. He avoided the parade and went to his hotel.

The event was billed as a pageant, complete with twenty floats that dramatized the cause of women’s suffrage through the ages. Washington, D.C. greeted the suffragists with houses dressed in yellow bunting mixed with red, white and blue. Despite their progressive attitudes, suffragists conformed to the racist norms of the day, relegating Black women to the rear of protests. Ida B. Wells famously refused such indignities, and during the March 1913 procession, took her rightful place with Illinois delegation, integrating her section.

March 1917 Man Repeller

A silent march to protest the police treatment of blacks during riots in East St. Louis, New York, 1917.

The march proceeded slowly along the avenue and was stopped several times, delaying the procession by hours. It was a bright, cold afternoon; there were some 500,000 onlookers, plenty of whom were drunk. Marchers were accosted with insults. A police officer stationed on the route purportedly said to one, “If my wife were where you are I’d break her head.” History sometimes omits recollection of the chaos endured by the participants, of calculated harassment and obstruction by the local police force. (Helen Keller was to speak at the parade but couldn’t reach the dais because angry spectators had overwhelmed the area surrounding it.) Milholland rode her horse into the crowd to protect marchers from onlookers. The Atlanta Constitution reported that the women “practically fought their way foot by foot up Pennsylvania Avenue, through a surging mob that completely defied the Washington police, swamped the marchers, and broke their procession into little companies.” The march’s organizers called for a congressional investigation.

These marches were for show as much as for political activism. “We always tried to make our lines as beautiful as we could and our banners were really beautiful,” said Alice Paul, the founder of the National Woman’s Party in a 1970 New York Times interview. “We…[made] speeches, beautiful speeches, but we never got to finish them because soon as a person opened her mouth she got arrested.” Suffragists wore white as a uniform and a statement against biases and social norms. (In those days, society believed women marching in formation on city streets and boulevards were no better than prostitutes, and should invite ridicule and scorn.) They were disciplined and feminine, they were orderly yet rebellious. They were unyielding. Paul was just 28 when she organized the 1913 march, which generated much-needed press as well as new supporters for the cause.

American women organized marches great and small during the late 1960s and into the ‘70s, from a Peace march in 1967 against the war in Vietnam to those critical of the objectification of women in the 1968 Miss America Pageant. On August 26, 1970, the 50th anniversary of the 19th amendment, outgoing NOW (National Organization for Women) president Betty Friedan marshaled women from multiple cities throughout the country to “strike.” Their demands were threefold: free abortion, free childcare for working mothers and equal education and employment. 10,000 women marched on Fifth Avenue in the afternoon and gathered at a rally in Bryant Park in the evening where Friedan declared, “This is not a bedroom war, this is a political movement.”

March Vietnam Man Repeller

Women’s Strike for Equality, New York, 1970.

There were spaces for discussion groups to foster dialogues around movement ideas as well as pop-up child care centers throughout the city designed to illustrate the urgent needs of working-class mothers, and to emphasize that women’s liberation was more than simply reproductive choice or sexual determinism — it was inextricable to economic independence. “Man is not the enemy, man is a fellow‐victim,” Friedan said to the crowd. Men had also participated in the march holding “Men for Women’s Rights” banners. While there were some jeers, in many ways, the Women’s Strike for Equality was more than just a one-day success. It launched the decade-long fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

Setbacks happened, women marched on. While women in the Americas continued to organize marches against sexual violence, rape culture, and in support of reproductive freedom and equality, miles across the ocean, 100,000 Iranian women marched and protested against islamic revolution in 1979. Those women would be the mothers of a generation of women who would emerge as activists and participants in the Green Revolution of 2009 in protest to the presidential election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Black women, like their foremothers in 1917 who took to the streets of New York to protest lynchings in St. Louis, organized and participated in countless marches for Black Lives Matter. And on January 21, 2017, like those who marched for suffrage on the eve of the inauguration of an American president, women will descend on our nation’s capital to call attention to the personhood of all American women. Banners will be plentiful, rich in color and message. Perhaps some will remind us of the wise words of Coretta Scott King: “Women, if the soul of the nation is to be saved, I believe that you must become its soul.” Again we march forward through the darkness, pulling our country forward into the light.

Syreeta McFadden is a writer and professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Her work has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, BuzzFeed News, Brooklyn Magazine, Feministing and The Guardian US, where she has been a regular contributor. Follow her on Twitter, @reetamac

Photos via Getty Images. Feature image depicts a Suffragette parade in 1912.

Meet the women who have hope for Planned Parenthood.

More from Archive