A century ago Sunday, Alice Paul, a 27-year-old upstart member of the women's suffrage movement, decided it was time for activists to stop being good girls.
The campaign for women's suffrage was more than 60 years old and going nowhere in 1912. For decades, women had petitioned Congress to grant them the ballot, only to be ignored. Seven Western states allowed women to vote, but most states showed no similar inclination.
Ms. Paul helped change all that by organizing a parade of thousands of women marching for the right to vote in Washington, D.C. She chose March 3, 1913, to stage the parade for strategic reasons. It was the day before the presidential inauguration (then held in March), ensuring the women wide media coverage. Women marching was a novelty. The parade of marchers numbered more than 5,000, according to The New York Times, but a half-million onlookers watched.
What few of the organizers anticipated was the contempt of so many spectators. "For most of the distance the marchers had to walk as best they could through a narrow lane of shouting spectators," reported The Times.
The marchers persevered. The bid for suffrage had entered a new, activist era, one that culminated in protests in front of the White House and women being arrested, imprisoned, beaten and force-fed — all because they demanded the right to vote. The determination of the women stirred consciences, and the nation ratified the 19th Amendment, giving women the vote in 1920, just seven years after the parade.
Of course, the parade wasn't perfect. Ms. Paul and other white, mostly Eastern organizers shamefully relegated black women marchers to the back so as not to alienate Southern white women. But Ida B. Wells, a brilliant journalist and early civil rights activist who was also black, joined the parade in the middle, in defiance.
Women don't take this hard-won right for granted. They provided 55 percent of the vote for president last year and helped elect a record number of women to Congress. A century ago, they marched on Washington to get the vote. Today, they use it.
Editor's note: This is an updated version to correct that black journalist Ida B. Wells joined the parade in the middle, not white journalist Ida Tarbell.