The white horse she straddled stamped impatiently in place as Inez Milholland, cloaked in a white cape that draped over the animal’s broad back, awaited the signal to start the march on the afternoon of March 3, 1913. When the bugle blew, her horse “Grey Dawn” trotted off so quickly from the Capitol Building that the five thousand costumed women marching along Pennsylvania Avenue in the first national suffrage parade lagged several blocks behind. The “beautifulest” suffragist did not know a howling mob awaited her around the corner. Characteristically, she charged into the fray, awing reporters who proclaimed her the suffrage Joan of Arc. No one watching the robust young lawyer would have predicted that just a few years later she would die fighting for votes for women, making her the nation’s sole suffrage martyr.
Nearly forgotten today, Vassar College-educated Milholland—suffragist, lawyer, journalist, socialist, athlete, free lover, pacifist, atheist, labor activist—was the most controversial and celebrated proponent of women’s suffrage during her lifetime.
In the 1910s she was the media’s poster girl for the New Women, the first feminists of the twentieth century, according to historian Nancy Cott. The New Women loathed limits and cherished choice, seeking professional fulfillment and personal pleasure. They were a seminal link between the earnest nineteenth-century woman’s rights activists and the free-spirited women’s liberationists of the late 1960s. It is difficult today to conceive how Milholland dazzled the press and her followers. Princess Diana comes to mind, although Gloria Steinem during the women’s lib years comes closer.
The centennial of Inez Milholland’s death at age thirty in November 1916, right after a woman was almost elected president for the first time, is a fitting occasion to remember that millions of American women labored for seventy years just for the right to vote.