Monday, December 31, 2012

Inez Milholland: Beautiful Suffragist on a White Charger


      On March 3, 1913, a statuesque woman clad in a flowing white cape and riding a white horse was the leader of a giant women's suffrage parade down Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue.

She carried a streaming banner reading, "Forward into light."  
Not quite 27 years old, Inez Milholland already had an impressive record of accomplishments.

She was a record-setting athlete in college, an attorney specializing in workers’ problems, and a forceful and charismatic speaker. A fighter for labor, she had been jailed as a suffragette in England.

      After inventing a successful pneumatic tube system for city mail delivery adopted in the United States and Europe, her father, John E. Milholland, became wealthy. In 1905, he created the Constitution League, a virtual one-man organization to fight the new “Jim Crow” laws in the South that made racial segregation legal.

His organization’s combative tactics in the courts and the press became the model for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He became the NAACP’s first treasurer. Her mother wrote a column, "Talks about Women," for The Crisis, the NAACP periodical.

      Inez Milholland was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on August 6, 1886. She grew up in Brooklyn and in Lewis, N.Y., a small Adirondack village west of Lake Champlain, where the family had a sprawling estate.

      In 1905, she entered Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, where she captained the field hockey team and held forbidden suffrage meetings. As a member of the track team, she set women's collegiate records in the shot put and basketball throw. A week after graduating in 1909 she sailed for England with her father.

      While in England, Inez applied to law schools at Oxford and Cambridge and at Harvard, Yale and Columbia in the U.S. Despite her high grades, the all-male institutions refused her. Inez enrolled at New York University's School of Law, which was encouraging applications by women.

      During the 1912 presidential campaign, Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican running on the Progressive ticket, split the Republican vote and guaranteed victory to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

      Wilson's inauguration was scheduled for March 4, 1913. Suffrage leader Alice Paul decided to upstage the event with "a procession for women's suffrage" the day before his swearing in. When he arrived at Washington on March 3rd from his home in Princeton, N.J., no crowd was waiting at Union Station to greet him.

      "Where is everybody?" the surprised president-elect asked.

      "They're all over at the suffrage parade on Pennsylvania Avenue," aides told him. 

Suffragists Attacked
      In spite of its meticulous planning and precise execution, the orderly parade of five thousand women turned into a near riot. Male spectators jeered and shoved the marchers. Spitting on them and pelting them with burning cigar butts, the rowdy crowd's behavior made the event a national news story. Standing idly by, the police seemed almost indifferent, and the situation quickly became chaotic.

      Responding to a frantic appeal from Washington’s chief of police, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson ordered the Fifteenth Cavalry to be summoned from Fort Myer across the Potomac. Troopers charged up the crowded avenue to clear it for the suffragists. The melee was an inauspicious start for an administration whose campaign had promised a reformist program called the New Freedom. A New York newspaper headline read, "Capital Mobs Make Converts to Suffrage."  

      In her busy life, Inez cut a wide swath through eager suitors. She had a brief platonic affair with Max Eastman until they both realized that their intense personalities clashed. They parted amicably.

      Her name was also linked romantically with that of Guglielmo Marconi, Italian inventor of wireless telegraphy. He regularly lost his heart to beautiful young women. She called him “Billy.”

      En route to England in May of 1913, she met and fell in love with 33-year-old Eugen Boissevain, an avowed suffragist. He was from a well-known Dutch family of French Huguenots who had emigrated to the Netherlands. Their wedding in London in July surprised their families and friends. Boissevin would make a small fortune during the war as a coffee importer,

      When the couple returned to the United States, they moved into the house in Harmon built by opera diva Lillian Nordica. The house still stands on Alexander Lane, a short street opposite the Croton Free Library.

The Peace Ship

      Late in 1915, Inez became a delegate on Henry Ford's "peace ship," the Oscar II of the Scandinavian-American Line, chartered by the automaker in a vain attempt to bring the warring nations of Europe to the bargaining table.

      Thomas Edison, John Wanamaker and Walter Lippmann all declined Ford’s invitation. Women active on behalf of suffrage, Anna Howard Shaw, Helen Keller, Crystal Eastman and Jane Addams, similarly turned down Ford’s offer of free passage. Even Clara Ford, the magnate’s wife, refused to go.

      Inez Mulholland accepted, saying, “The expedition may fail, but the world has been the better for gallant failures.” Some 160 Americans made up the passenger list, one third of them members of the press, including future ambassador William Christian Bullitt, representing the Philadelphia Ledger.

      Conflict arose even before the ship reached Oslo. Inez quit the party in Stockholm and traveled home after a detour to Berlin, where she charmed the German foreign minister.

A Fateful Campaign

      When Wilson ran for reelection in 1916, he remained lukewarm about giving the vote to women. Democratic states in the "solid South" were opposed to the idea, and he didn't want to risk losing their support.

      The tall, beautiful Amazon set out on a speaking tour of western states urging voters to reject him for failing to support the vote for women. After leaving New York on October 4, she was to speak in 43 different cities in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Nevada, California, Kansas and Illinois--all in less than a month. But Inez Milholland’s health was not good. Constantly tired, she insisted on adhering to her grueling schedule.

      At a rally in Los Angeles on October 23rd she collapsed on the platform. Her last words uttered in public were a cry from the heart: "President Wilson, how long must this go on?”  Taken to her hotel, she was discovered to have infections of her tonsils and teeth.

      Admitted to Good Samaritan Hospital later that day, her condition was diagnosed by specialists as aplastic anemia, a serious disease in which the body is unable to make red blood cells. The only remedy is repeated blood transfusions. Despite four transfusions the prognosis for Inez was not good.                         

      In his 1948 memoir Enjoyment of Living, Max Eastman recounted a touching deathbed scene. Her distraught husband was at her bedside. As the flame of life flickered within her, Eugen Boissevain asked, "Shall I come with you?"

      Inez knew exactly what his oblique question implied. "No," she whispered weakly, "you go on and live another life."

      Inez Milholland died at 10:55 p.m. on November 25, 1916, at the age of 30. The women's suffrage movement had lost a powerful voice, but it now had a martyr. Her father accompanied her coffin from California to the Adirondacks for burial.

      On learning of her death, Carl Sandburg wrote a poem. It read:

          They are crying salt tears
          Over the beautiful beloved body
          Of Inez Milholland,
          Because they are glad she lived,
          Because she loved open-armed,
          Throwing love for a cheap thing
          Belonging to everybody-
          Cheap as sunlight,
          And morning air.

      On Christmas Day in 1916, Alice Paul’s  National Women’s Party held the first memorial service in the Capitol. Statuary Hall was decorated with pennants of purple, white and gold, the Party's colors. Mabel Younger, a suffragist from California, was selected as keynote speaker.

      When Younger protested she was unequal to the task, the indomitable Paul responded, “Nonsense. Just write something like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.”

      Less eloquent than Lincoln perhaps, Younger moved listeners with her vivid description of Milholland: “She went into battle, a laugh on her lips. Obstacles inspired her, discouragement urged her on. She loved work and she loved battle. She loved life and laughter and light, and above all else, she loved liberty.”

Eight years later, in August of 1924, the National Women’s Party held its convention in the North Country.       Ten thousand persons turned out in the small town of Lewis, N.Y. to honor the courageous fighter who did not live to see the women’s vote amendment become a reality.

      Inez Milholland’s grave lies atop a quiet knoll in the cemetery next to the Congregational church in Lewis. Almost a century after her death, few know where her grave is. Even fewer visit it these days.

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