One hundred years ago, on October 22, 1916, Inez Milholland Boissevain gave a powerful suffrage speech in Los Angeles. At one point, she directed a question at Woodrow Wilson: “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” As those words echoed through the hall, Inez collapsed on stage.
Today, New York State prepares to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage and the nation approaches an historic election – a woman is the presidential nominee of a major political party. The importance of casting a vote on November 8, 2016, seems obvious, and the right to vote taken for granted. But consider that women in New York State could not vote in Congressional or Presidential elections a hundred years ago. However, after decades of campaigning for women’s suffrage, it appeared that momentum was building in 1916. One woman from New York helped spur the forces to move “forward into light.”
The young, vivacious, intelligent, and beautiful Inez Milholland had made suffrage “fashionable.” Her radical methods had kept her in the headlines. Leading Vassar women across the road for the famous “graveyard rally.” Charging her white horse through the unruly crowd at the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, DC. Proposing to her husband.
She was a socialite but she also had zeal as a crusader for social causes and equal rights for all human beings. As a lawyer, she worked for prison reform and labor reform and women’s rights. She was a member of NAACP and had insisted that black women be allowed to march in the 1913 parade.
Thus, it was not surprising that as the 1916 elections approached, the National Women’s Party selected Inez Milholland to be the “special flying envoy” for a campaign against President Wilson, because he refused to insert the suffrage amendment into the party platform. In October, Inez set out from New York on a 12,000 mile tour, mostly throughout the western states where women had gained the vote. She pleaded with the audiences: “Women of the West, stand by us now. Visit your displeasure upon that political party that has ignored and held cheaply the interest of women. Let no party, whatsoever its name, dare to slur the demands of women, … and come to you for your endorsement at the polls. Make them feel your indignation. Let them know that women stand by women.”
Although she was winning over the crowds, the grueling schedule of speaking every day and riding trains through the night exhausted Inez. Though she had always been plagued by frail health, by the time she reached California, she was exhausted and had great black and blue bruises all over her body. A doctor said it was all caused by her tonsils, so until she could have them removed, he gave her arsenic and strychnine and strong coffee.
For the sake of the cause, Inez continued the campaign. A week later, she collapsed in Los Angeles. After taking a short break, she stood and insisted on finishing her speech. Later, at the hospital, she was found to be very ill and in great pain, suffering from pernicious anemia and throat trouble. After several blood transfusions, doctors said she had “an even chance for recovery.” Her condition improved and declined several times before she died on November 25, 1916 – at age 30.
She was buried at the top of the hill in the Lewis Cemetery in the Adirondacks, but her death stunned the entire nation. Memorial services were held throughout the country, including one in Statutory Hall in the U.S. Capitol. This is where the nation had held services for Presidents Lincoln and Garfield. Never before had a woman been honored in that hall.
In her memorial address, Maud Younger said: “Inez Milholland was the flaming torch that went ahead to light the way…. With new devotion we go forth, inspired by her sacrifice – that this sacrifice be not in vain.”
The National Woman’s Party thought the death of Inez would shock President Wilson into supporting suffrage. After the memorial service, they composed a resolution calling upon President Wilson to “act so that by her death Inez Milholland Boissevain shall have delivered her countrywomen.” It also quoted Inez’s words: “Don’t dare to say you are free until all women are free.”
On January 9, 1917, a group of 300 women brought the resolution to President Wilson. “One of our most beautiful and beloved comrades, Inez Milholland, has paid the price of her life for a cause,” said Sara Bard Field. “As we look over the long backward trail through which we have sought our political liberty, we are asking, how long, how long, must this struggle go on?”
President Wilson did not react as the women had expected. Instead he gave a defiant glance and left the room.
Enraged by the president’s response, the women gathered that evening to discuss a new tactic. They were tired of waiting. Inez, their martyr, compelled them to action beyond suffrage teas and open-air meetings and suffrage parades. The women decided to picket the White House. The next morning, women stood silently on the sidewalk holding up banners, one of which displayed Inez’s last public words: HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?
Over the next year and a half, a total of more than a thousand women picketed with banners demanding the right to vote. Onlookers often booed and pushed and threw things at the women. World War I was underway and many looked at their actions as unpatriotic. Before long, the police began to arrest women for “obstructing the highway.”
More than 200 of the women picketers were arrested. Nearly half went to jail. In October 1917, seven of the jailed women staged a hunger strike to protest their treatment. Officials force-fed them by shoving a tube down their throats and then pouring in liquid. Eventually, their terrible treatment made front page news and public outrage caused prison officials to release the women.
This is just one example of the sacrifice and suffering endured by numerous women during the long campaign for women suffrage. In New York State, women gained the vote in November of 1917, a year after the death of Inez Milholland. Today, a hundred years after Inez’s dramatic collapse and eventual death, many of her words (and those of her comrades) are still applicable.
In this historic election of 2016, I hope we remember the history of these brave women and let their lives be an inspiration. Cast your ballot and cast it wisely.
Photos: Above, protesters in front of the White House, and below, Inez Milholland in 1913.