The Women's March: Standing on the Shoulders of the Women Before Us

As someone who works for the National Woman’s Party, it was especially spectacular to attend the Women’s March on Washington on Saturday, January 21. Every day, I am lucky to have the chance to immerse myself in the history of American women’s fight for suffrage and equal rights. Arriving at Independence Avenue and Third Street in Washington, D.C. on the morning of the recent March, I was keenly aware of the history we were continuing.

In 1913, frustrated by the slow progress of the woman’s suffrage amendment, Alice Paul organized a parade for the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration to demand passage of the federal amendment granting women the right to vote. As a result of her efforts, at least 5,000 women from across the country marched down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House on March 3, 1913, asserting their citizenship and their rights. The parade was a beautiful, captivating spectacle which could not be ignored. Some marchers dressed as historical heroines such as Joan of Arc while many wore cloaks of white, purple, and gold; they drove enormous floats and carried signs with their demands for equality and true democracy; and they marched forward, showing strength with their numbers. With the parade, Alice Paul established herself as a leader of the suffrage movement, allowing her to form her own organization – the National Woman’s Party.

In 2017, women are still marching for their rights. A contentious election made many people across the United States and around the world question the security of women’s progress. On January 21, the day after the inauguration, women and their allies came out in force to show their commitment to protecting and advancing human rights (and asserting women’s rights are human rights), and demanding that their government represent them. Some marchers found inspiration from the 20th century suffragists; within the sea of protest signs were photographs of the 1913 parade and quotes from the National Woman’s Party such as “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?”

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In an extraordinary effort, women activists banded together and began organizing the Women’s March on Washington almost immediately after the election on November 8, and pulled together possibly the largest protest in U.S. history with just two months to plan. The day of the Women’s March, I joined the hundreds of thousands of people who flooded the streets of D.C. So many people came for the March that we could not take the originally planned route on Independence Avenue – we filled up the entire path before we even started moving. The organizers worked diligently to find another route, and we ended up marching down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House – just as the suffragists did in 1913.

A lot can change in 100 years. While 5,000 marchers in D.C. was a great success in 1913, the increasing solidarity around women’s rights in the past century and advances in communication with social media resulted in over half a million people from across the country marching in D.C. the day of the Women’s March, as well as an estimated 3 million people marching in different cities across the United States, and over 5 million people marching across all seven continents (including an expedition of marchers in Antarctica).

Similar to the 2017 Women’s March, planning for the 1913 suffrage parade did not come without tension. The women’s rights movement contained racial conflict since it formally began at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, and the 1913 parade was segregated. The sorority Delta Sigma Theta was the only African American organization to participate in the parade, and they were asked to march in the back of the procession. Ida B. Wells traveled to D.C. for the parade with her fellow Illinois suffragists and planned to march with her state delegation, but she was asked to walk in the back with the other African American women. Never one to avoid a confrontation, Wells waited for the parade to start, then stepped out of the crowd and into the procession on March 3rd in her rightful place with the Illinois delegation.

The struggles and successes that the 2017 Women’s March on Washington had in representing diversity demonstrate how far this country has come and how much work is left to do. The March was originally promoted by a group of white women who received backlash when they named it the “Million Woman March” – viewed by many as an appropriation of the name of the 1997 black women’s march. The organizers were quick to course correct, changing the name to “Women’s March on Washington,” which received similar criticism for assuming the name of the 1963 Civil Rights Movement march, leading the organizers to recognize Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of their influences. Many people were also concerned about the ability of a group of white women to organize a protest that represented the full range of issues women face, since various facets of identity such as ethnicity, socio-economic status, religion, immigration status, and sexuality, and not just gender, affect a woman’s experience in society and her protections under the government. With an eye toward addressing the many different concerns of America’s diverse women, the initial organizers recruited women of color into leadership roles. These new leaders built a March of a diverse group of hundreds of thousands of protesters raising their collective voice in chants about Black Lives Matter, religious tolerance, protection of immigrants and refugees, climate change, free press, reproductive health and freedom, and a multitude of other progressive issues. The Women’s March on Washington revealed the power of women to work toward building solidarity around the many challenges this country faces. The discussions about the inclusiveness of the March hopefully mark the beginning of a continued effort to acknowledge the internal struggles activists must tackle to move our country forward.

Just as the March 3, 1913 parade was called the rebirth of the woman’s suffrage movement, at the pre-march rally on January 21, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand called the day’s demonstrations the “beginning of the revival of the women’s movement.” It is certainly an exciting time to preserve and promote women’s history, as we see historic moments continuing to unfold before us.