Today in Feminist History: Senators Put the Police on Trial (March 6, 1913)

March 6, 1913: Today marched a small parade of 20 witnesses before a Senate subcommittee.

Though today’s group was far fewer in number than the thousands of suffragists who fought their way down the packed streets of Washington, D.C., on March 3rd, the respect and courtesy this smaller group received was infinitely greater. 

Eyewitness accounts of the suffrage parade and pageant three days ago were such a scathing indictment of police inefficiency, indifference and hostility that Senator Wesley Jones, Republican of Washington, who is in charge of the hearings, indicated that no more testimony on the events of the day is needed. The job of the subcommittee will now be to fix responsibility for the disgraceful performance of the police.

Major Richard Sylvester, Chief of the District Police, spent the day in the back of the hearing room taking notes in preparation for the grilling he’s certain to receive when it’s his turn to testify. 

The parade participants had expected heckling from some in the crowd, and a certain degree of pushing and shoving is inevitable when thousands of marchers and a half-million spectators compete for space, but what the suffrage advocates encountered went far beyond that.

Police under-deployment and outright hostility were illustrated by numerous examples. For instance, when the crowd became so dense at Ninth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue that one of the parade floats was unable to move, one of only three nearby officers inexplicably arrested the float’s driver instead of clearing a path.

Indifference was the only alternative to hostility among police, with Julia Lathrop describing them as acting like “spectators.” Helena Hill Weed testified that though the jeers made by the crowd went well beyond the usual ribald jests and into the vilest of obscenities, the police chatted in a friendly manner with those in the mob’s front ranks, and even contributed a few insults of their own, thus encouraging the remarks to escalate. Even attempts by some in the crowd to pull women off floats were ignored by the officers, with 17-year-old Verna Hatfield among those who had to fight off the attacks on their own.

Outrage over the mishandling of parade security is not confined to the halls of Congress or suffrage groups. Even the staunchly anti-suffrage New York Times denounced the behavior of both spectators and police in an editorial yesterday, calling the number of officers assigned “pitifully inadequate,” and saying that the few who were there were “in sympathy with the rioters rather than the paraders.”

If the goal of the police and hecklers was to heap disrespect on the marchers and their cause, they failed miserably when those who marched showed great dignity, persistence and restraint. Those who tried to disrupt the parade only succeeded in bringing disgrace upon themselves and the entire anti-suffrage movement.

The parade’s successful completion was therefore a double triumph, and two steps forward toward the day when sex discrimination will be banned at all polling places, and “Votes for Women” marches will no longer be necessary.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.