On January 21, the day after Donald Trump's inauguration, women will march on Washington with a message for the new administration on their first day: women's rights are human rights. By doing so, they are not only fighting for our future, but honoring the long legacy of women marching on Washington to bring about meaningful change.
March 3, 1913. Woman Suffrage Parade.
On the eve of President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, Helen Keller was one of 5,000 women who "march[ed] in a spirit of protest against the political organization of society, from which women are excluded." They lined up under banners representing their states, their occupations, and their organizations in Washington, D.C., accompanied by nine bands, four mounted brigades, and twenty floats.
Keller wasn't the only famous woman in attendance. Jeanette Rankin marched under the Montana banner and would return four years later as the first U.S. congresswoman. Ida B. Wells defiantly marched with her state, against instructions from organizers Alice Paul and the National American Woman Suffrage Association. White Southern members had insisted women of color should march in the back with a segregated unit.
Another surprise: the tens of thousands of men in town for the inauguration had not been cleared from the streets, and those men, most of whom had been born with the right to vote, thought of the privilege as exclusive to their gender. And so they jeered at the women, at first, and then they jostled and shoved and tripped the Suffragists. Police were there, but most of the men in uniform stood still, complicit in the violence. Red Cross ambulances struggled to get to the 100 women who, newspapers would later report, ended up in the hospital.
Finally, the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania National Guard stepped in, and young men from the Maryland Agricultural College formed a human shield, helping the women finish the march. It led to Congressional hearings, but not the kind the women had hoped for. The hearings were about the violence and resulted in the dismissal of the superintendent of police. The next time Congress considered these women, seven years later, they finally got what they had come for on that cold winter's day: the right to vote.
January 15, 1968. Jeanette Rankin Brigade.
Fifty-five years after she'd marched for the right to vote, Jeanette Rankin, then 87, held a banner that read: "End the war in Vietnam and the social crisis at home!" Five thousand women followed, many clad in black as a tribute to the war's mounting death toll. They sang, along with folk artist Judy Collins, "This Land Is Your Land."
The march was technically illegal. The Capitol Police invoked a law forbidding demonstrations that had never once, despite having been on the books since 1882, been used. The Brigade sued the Chief, but nothing had been decided on the day of the march.
The Capitol Police could try to challenge the women's First Amendment rights, but ultimately, Rankin had the best representation — herself. As a former congresswoman, she could enter the House floor and hand a peace petition directly to the House Speaker, John McCormack.
Rankin met up with Coretta Scott King, 40, who gave a speech calling for peace at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, but not all women felt represented by wives and mothers. A group of 200 to 500 women wearing miniskirts tried to take over the stage, and encouraged the marchers to join them in a mock funeral procession of "traditional womanhood" at Arlington National Cemetery.
The Washington Post described the Jeanette Rankin Brigade as "peaceful and ladylike," though Congress did not act on its petition. Rankin died in 1973 at the age of 92. A statue of her stands in the Capitol's Statuary Hall. The inscription reads "I Cannot Vote for War," commemorating neither of her marches but her statement as the only member out of 389 delegates in the House who refused, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, to vote in favor of going to war with Japan.