Historians warn us against falling into a trap called the retrospective fallacy, that is, assuming that whatever happened – the Confederacy was defeated, we survived the Great Depression without a revolution – was bound to happen.
When we succumb to that kind of thinking, we overlook the achievements and sacrifices of those who brought us safely to harbor. Among those is Adirondack legend and women’s rights advocate Inez Milholland.
“The only people who have heard about her are those who majored in women’s history in college,” Joan Wages, president and chief executive of the National Women’s History Museum, told the Washington Post in 2013. “That is because the history textbooks still say that women were ‘given’ the vote in 1920. The 72 years that led up to that 1920 amendment are just erased.”
Milholland, a Vassar graduate who held a law degree from NYU, was notorious in her day as a figurehead of the movement. On March 4, 1913, the day Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated for his first term, women from every state gathered in the capital and staged a great parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. Leading the parade on a white charger was Milholland, then 25 years old.
Three years later, as she was barnstorming through the west, campaigning for passage of the constitutional amendment to enfranchise women, she collapsed on stage at a rally in Los Angeles and died shortly thereafter. She was buried in the Milholland family plot at the Congregational Church in Lewis, is Essex County, New York.
An example of that recognition is a new book, Remembering Inez: The Last Campaign of Inez Milholland. Consisting of essays she wrote for the movement’s magazine, The Suffragist, in 1916, and edited by Robert J. Cooney, the author of “Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Women Suffrage Movement” the book demonstrates clearly why Milholland became a leader of the movement
“She believed in democracy and she represented the concerns of women who at the time had no elected leaders. She spoke out eloquently for women, defended them, challenged them and worked to improve their condition,” writes Cooney.
Thanks in part to Milholland, New York became one of only a dozen or so states within the Union to grant women the right to vote in local and state elections before the 20th amendment was adopted in 1920.
Born in 1886, she was the daughter of John Milholland, an Essex County native who made a fortune from his investments in the pneumatic tube. (By training a newspaperman, he got his start on the Ticonderoga Sentinel.)
He used a part of that fortune to acquire property in Lewis – Mount Discovery and the surrounding lands, some of which is now occupied by the Meadowmount School for Strings.
Eight years after the adoption of the 20th amendment, the National Women’s Party held a conference at Meadowmount, which concluded with a pageant in the meadows below Mount Discovery.
Anne Boissevain Nussbaum, who was related to the brother of Milholland’s husband and who lived in Westport, once recalled the pageant in detail.
More than 10,000 people attended, she said. The theme was the passing of the torch of freedom from one generation to the next. Great women leaders of the past were honored, and Inez’s role was dramatized by the appearance of her sister, Vida, riding a white horse as Inez had done. In the final act of the pageant, Mrs. Nusbaum took the torch and passed it on.
Generations of American women have been doing that same thing, in one form or another, ever since.