Saturday, March 2, 2013

Happy Anniversary, Suffragist Parade of 1913!!

On March 3, 1913, National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) carried out a protest comprised of over 5,000 supporters of women's right to vote. The plan was to accentuate the visual appeal of floats and pageants in a parade along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., and thereby attract media attention. As it was the day before President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, planners expected that an unusually large number of reporters would be present from around the country.

Organizers embraced a Middle Ages theme, in keeping with popular tastes at the time. They made reference to the life of Joan of Arc, an archetype of female empowerment. The artwork associated with the 1913 parade is striking, and its idealistic tone offers a sharp contrast to some of the uglier sentiments that the suffragists were about to face.

The event did raise awareness of the issue of women's rights, but not entirely in the way that the organizers had planned. Women who participated in the march were subjected to unexpected levels of violence from spectators. Over a hundred women required medical attention after being physically assaulted. The New York Tribune reported, "Capital Mobs Made Converts to Suffrage" and the Woman's Journal announced, "Parade Struggles to Victory Despite Disgraceful Scenes, Nation Aroused by Open Insults to Women -- Cause Wins Popular Sympathy." (source)
Ambulance at the scene of the 1913 parade
The intensity of anti-suffragist sentiment at the time may startle people who are young enough to have been spared first-hand exposure to virulently misogynistic sexist attitudes that were once widely accepted. There is value in studying the historical artifacts left behind from the early 1900's, to confront those obsolescent attitudes, and better understand how much progress women have made since those dark days.

Many men were openly opposed to any social movement that would upset the prevailing gender roles. The prospect of doing housework or changing diapers was loathsome to many men, and the idea of women entering the workplace was perceived as emasculating. As is often the case, when reactionary ideas find expression in the printed word or in images, the results reflect negatively on the author. From a modern point of view, the notion of men cowering at the prospect of taking care of their own children can only be viewed as childishly irresponsible and self-indulgent.

Many women were also committed to the status quo, preferring to partake of the cult of domesticity and motherhood. Anti-suffrage leagues, as noted in Julia Bush's book Women Against the Vote, "soon began to afford great delight and comfort to their opponents by the inepitude and futility of their ways." Suffragists lampooned stubborn, bigoted male politicians and police officers who were unsympathetic to the cause, rather than their fellow women. Yet, of subscribers to the anti-suffragist movement, roughly 5 out of 6 were women. It is likely the case that many women resisted feminism because they believed that it imperiled the only sources of influence left to women: the power of being attractive to men and the power that came from veneration of the maternal role.

In terms of the study of political protest and social change, the struggle of the suffragists reveals a common pattern. Suffragists were placed in prison for protesting. And, once this was known, suffragists became stigmatized as criminals. It is an example of a "Catch-22" situation that is a hallmark of a political environment that is either despotic or on the brink of despotism. Sometimes, people recognize the danger and lead government back to the path of Republican liberty. Other times, the people prefer to bury their heads in the sand, and are not stirred until the loss of liberty is unendurable.

Times of struggle lie ahead for anyone who counts him- or herself a defender of Republican Liberty. It is worth reflecting on these lessons of history, and brace for the future. 

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