Today in Feminist History: Putting the Failure of the Police on Blast (March 8, 1913)

March 8, 1913: Alice Paul, the head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s Congressional Committee, testifies in front of a Senate subcommittee.

Paul, who organized the massive suffrage parade and pageant five days ago, gave sharply contradictory views to a Senate subcommittee today about where responsibility should lie for the near-riot conditions on March third. And how District of Columbia Chief of Police Major Richard Sylvester failed to protect it.

PHOTO: Alice Paul, at the center in the front row, with other members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s Congressional Committee. They are sitting on the steps of their newly-established headquarters in Washington, D.C., taking a short break from their work of planning the March 3rd parade and pageant. In the back row on the left is Gertrude Leonard, with Nina Allender, Lulu Hemingway, Hazel MacKaye, and Elsie Hill to the right. In the front row, on the left, is Glenna Tinnin, with Helen Gardener, Alice Paul, Elizabeth Kent and Genevieve Stone to the right.

Major Sylvester testified first and was unwilling to accept any responsibility whatever, claiming he did everything he should have, and that it was a failure to carry out his instructions that permitted the assault on the parade by the mob:

“I did my duty. I exhausted every effort I could command as an official, the head of the Police Department, to furnish the parade with the protection which should have been accorded. My conscience is clear.”

Major Sylvester read a series of instructions he had supposedly issued to the D.C. Police prior to the parade. He then read a number of reports he asked his captains to write for the committee.

Every captain reported that he and his men had done their duty—and nowhere was there the slightest indication of the disorder vividly described to the subcommittee day before yesterday by twenty witnesses, and widely denounced in the press. Audience members who had participated in the parade made no secret of their skepticism, and ridiculed the reports.

Sylvester claimed he was “shocked” when he arrived at Pennsylvania Avenue and saw that crowds had breached the security lines not just where he was, but all along the parade route. In one of the few things that the suffragists in the audience heard from him that they could applaud, he said:

“The failure of the police to protect was contrary to discipline, contrary to law, contrary to justice, contrary to my express orders, and the man who failed to do his part toward protecting these women should be immediately dismissed.”

Chief Sylvester provided no examples of discipline toward any officers, however. Though he claimed he believed the force he had deployed was sufficient, Alice Paul furnished testimony that he should have known it was not, and that he had been repeatedly “bombarded” for over a month with requests to insure sufficient protection for the parade. Sylvester had been negative from the time Paul had first asked for a parade permit, and said that he had too few men to provide security for such an event due to huge crowds which would be drawn to the city for President-elect Wilson’s inauguration the next day.

After the parade permit was issued, Paul reminded Sylvester of his remarks about not being able to provide adequate security and asked him to contact the War Department to provide additional help from the Army. He failed to do so, and even on the day of the march, the Secretary of War was reassured by local authorities that no trouble was expected. 

Fortunately, Secretary Stimson “stretched the law” a bit. 
Though federal troops are not authorized to do normal law enforcement duties—only to suppress an insurrection or riot—Stimson wisely ordered a troop of cavalry from Fort Myer to be placed at the edge of the city as a precaution should they be needed quickly. When finally called into action, the mounted troops charged down Pennsylvania Avenue and were able to clear the street ahead of the marchers for the last few blocks of the procession.

The day concluded with more testimony about the indignities and assaults endured by the marchers. One of the contingents in the parade—this one composed entirely of men—was led by retired Major General Anson Mills. He described the crowds of “hoodlums” making remarks specifically insulting to those in his group as men, and expressing an intent to break up the ranks of the marchers.

The police did nothing to stop what he described as “vicious” verbal and physical attacks. It was that kind of determination on the part of marchers which enabled the parade to successfully finish without the help of Major Sylvester and his officers.


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.