The Very First Women's March Is A Reminder That 'Women's Rights' Is A Pretty New Phenomenon
The Women's March of 2017 drew millions of protesters from all corners of the globe. Pink hats and a sea of homemade signs flooded through Washington, D.C., Manhattan, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, and Miami. The display of solidarity came also to public spaces around the world, from London to Tokyo, Athens to Cape Town. Based on those global images, and the footage of thousands of women and allies marching in the nation's capital, it is perhaps too easy to take for granted widespread support for gender equality. But the first women's march in the United States in 1913 is a sobering reminder of the hard scrabble historic work that had to come first, that helped bring us to 2017 reality.
Society isn't perfect — far from it. But compared to the conditions faced by the 5,000 women who braved ridicule and arrest to march in 1913 for women's rights, today boasts a remarkable testament to progress. Little more than a hundred years separates a movement advocating rights as basic as voting — a movement that often met with violence — from 2016, the year we saw the first major party female presidential candidate.
So what was that first women's march like? The date was March 3, 1913, one day before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson. It seems the 2017 iteration took a major cue from the first timers in scheduling their protest within 24 hours of a president's swearing-in ceremony. After all, it's a smart publicity play, and the 5,000 women who went to D.C. a century ago wanted as much press attention as possible.
Their cause was not exactly a popular one. Having thick skin and an openness to jail time were non-negotiable requirements for participation in any public support for the suffragist movement. Many of the most recognized faces who showed up for the first women's march experienced the inside of a prison cell at some point during their activist careers. Lucy Burns, Dora Lewis, and Elizabeth Freeman were all prison alumni, along with hundreds of their peers.
Organized by Alice Paul from the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the marchers endeavored to impress. They brought with them nine bands, 20 parade floats, and several horseback riding brigades. The marchers also met with a rowdy and largely antagonistic crowd. With tens of thousands of visitors in town for Wilson's inauguration, the march eventually came to a halt, blocked by spectators. And things only got worse from there.
Marchers were tripped and assaulted. In what seems unthinkable today compared to how peace the women's marches were this year, over 100 of the women marchers ended up in the hospital. But their troubles were not in vain, as the story of rampant and largely ignored misconduct by men at the march ended up a national story that provoked so much outrage, Congress itself got involved. After a hearing on the event, the head of the Washington D.C. superintendent of police ended up losing his job.
Nearly seven years later, the primary goal of the women's march at last came to fruition. Ratified in 1920, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.
In what roughly equates to one lifetime (albeit a lengthy one), the women's rights movement in the United States has moved from the threat of imprisonment for the "crime" of voting to fighting for paid leave, reproductive rights, and a host of other things for women. And that seems as powerful a display of progress as any other out there.