As thousands gathered for the Women's March on Washington, they were treading in the footsteps of women who, more than a century ago, fought through violent crowds to demand the vote during the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession. That year, the suffragists' struggle was in its sixth decade, and the worse for wear. Since 1869, suffragists had hand-delivered signed petitions to the Capitol each year, to very little effect.
Disagreement over tactics, emphasis, and strategy riled the movement. What was the best method for persuading male politicians and their XY voters? Quiet, behind-the-scenes lobbying or public demonstrations? Should reform efforts target the state or federal level?
While several Western states and territories successfully passed constitutional amendments giving women the vote, a faction strove for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Among them was Alice Paul. Arrested, imprisoned, and force-fed during her years spent marching with the more militant British suffragists, the 28-year-old New Jersey Quaker attended the Philadelphia gathering of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1912 to stake out a bold plan: an extravagant parade in the nation's capital.
March 3, the date selected, was intended to maximize the number of spectators and press already in town; Woodrow Wilson's first inaugural was slated for the following day.
Tasked with raising the necessary funds herself, Paul immediately set out to drum up support and raise awareness.
"Why you must march," ran a promotional broadside printed by Paul's National Woman's Party, is "because this is the most conspicuous and important demonstration that has ever been attempted by suffragists in this country."
In addition to her daily press bulletins, Paul also worked with 16 "suffrage pilgrims" to arrange their walk from New York to Washington in time for the procession.
Marching along Pennsylvania from the Capitol to the Treasury Building, conservative estimates cite 5,000 suffragists, including female delegates from countries that had enfranchised women.
Organized by state, profession, and - initially, at least - race, the march's ranks were bolstered by 24 floats, nine bands, four mounted brigades, and three heralds. The prominent labor lawyer Inez Milholland - bedecked in an all-white ensemble atop a white horse - led the charge, while a contingent of male supporters brought up the rear.
What started smoothly that Monday afternoon soon erupted into a near-riot. A crush of male humanity overcame the steel cable barricades and spilled into the street, violently interrupting the procession.
With police unable - and indeed, unwilling - to protect the marchers, women were subject to incidents ranging from barnyard heckling to outright assault. So dire was the situation that Secretary of War Henry Stimson authorized cavalry to quell the crowd.
The capital's ambulatory services "came and went constantly for six hours, always impeded and at times actually opposed, so that doctor and driver literally had to fight their way to give succor to the injured," reported the Washington Post the following day. More than 100 women had to be hospitalized.
Undaunted, the women successfully made it to the Treasury Building to stage the procession's capstone: an allegorical play featuring Justice, Charity, Liberty, Peace, and Hope.
With 500,000 estimated spectators - including press from across the country - the march generated national headlines for weeks. "Capital Mobs Made Converts to Suffrage," ran the New York Tribune. Or, as procession participant Nellie Bly pithily put it, "Suffragists Are Men's Superiors."
At a Senate hearing investigating the havoc, a police officer quipped, referring to the marchers, "There would be nothing like this happen if you would stay at home." His superintendent was soon scalped.
Many otherwise indifferent to women's enfranchisement were nonetheless shocked at the abridgement of their constitutional right of assembly and physical safety. While no legislation resulted - it would be seven more years before the passage of the 19th Amendment - the 1913 march injected a much-needed jolt into the suffrage campaign, reinvigorating women across the United States to press boldly for their equal civil rights, a tradition proudly continuing to this day.