By Alyson Foster
Content & Collections Specialist, National Geographic Library
This week marks the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The event was the culmination of more than a century of struggle and setbacks for American women.
For those of us living today, it’s hard to understand the controversy surrounding the enfranchisement of women. What’s the big deal? we think. Why shouldn’t women have the right to vote? But a century ago, suffrage was seen as a radical idea by many Americans. Women who lobbied for equal rights were subject to ridicule, hostility, and even imprisonment.
Elsie May Grosvenor was one of many women who witnessed these tactics firsthand. Nicknamed the “First Lady of the National Geographic” (she was married to National Geographic editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor and the daughter of National Geographic Society president Alexander Graham Bell)
Elsie May was a firm supporter of women’s rights. No doubt she had heard the arguments of those opposed to enfranchising women. But when she volunteered to participate in a suffrage parade in the spring of 1913, it seems likely that she had no idea what she was about to experience.
On March 3, the day of the procession, Elsie May joined the several thousand determined women who were lined up to march along Washington, D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue. The demonstrators included the famous suffragists Jane Addams (who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931) and the Reverend Anna Howard Shaw. Marchers carried yellow balloons and signs and banners that read “Votes for Women” and “Tell Your Troubles to Woodrow,” referring to President Woodrow Wilson.
The parade’s planners deliberately scheduled the march to take place the day before President Wilson’s inauguration, hoping that they would draw some of the spectators who were in town to attend the inaugural festivities.
And sure enough, they did. Almost 500,000 onlookers showed up.
And within only a few blocks it was clear that things were quickly getting out of control. Many of the male spectators, who had been drinking, began to jeer and taunt the women. The abuse escalated, and before long throngs of onlookers overran the barriers, and began pushing and shoving the marchers, knocking some to the ground and burning others with lighted cigars. Police waded in, wielding their clubs, but they were hopelessly outnumbered. The parade came nearly to a standstill and complete chaos broke out.
As men swarmed the car Elsie May was riding in, all she could do was attempt to shield her children from the violence around them. Although she escaped unscathed, other women were not so lucky. One hundred marchers had to be taken to the hospital and treated for injuries. Only when cavalry troops from nearby Fort Myer, Virginia, were rushed into Washington to restore order were the women able to complete their procession.
In the aftermath of the riot, questions were raised about the Washington, D.C., Police Department’s failure to protect the marchers. Elsie May was called in to testify to a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing about the events, and her account was corroborated by several other witnesses.
The hearing led to the dismissal of the chief of police for negligence. More importantly, it brought widespread attention to the suffrage movement and helped the suffragists gain sympathy and support. It also helped galvanize serious consideration of the Constitutional amendment that would pass seven years later, finally allowing women to achieve their hard-fought goal. And for the rest of her life, Elsie May looked back on her participation in the suffrage movement as one of the most important and worthwhile experiences of her life and proclaimed herself proud to have taken part in such a historic moment.