Inez Milholland was one of the most famous suffragists of the early 1900s. She campaigned for suffrage in London and throughout the United States, and she worked for the cause in the Champlain Valley, too. The Milhollands had established family roots in the region in the 1850s and John Milholland, Inez's father, purchased the old family farm in Lewis, New York, and named it Meadowmount. Inez often spent summers and holidays there.
In 1905, Inez went to Vassar College where she excelled in her studies, starred in school plays, and bested the school record in the basketball throw and the eight-pound shot put. She also made her mark in politics, particularly when she adopted what others deemed an odd notion: that women should vote.
Inez convinced many classmates to join the cause and started a Women’s Suffrage club. Vassar officials refused to allow her to organize a suffrage meeting on campus, so she held the meeting across the road---in a cemetery. It was called the "graveyard rally."
When she graduated, the president at Vassar said, "Oh, Inez Milholland. Wonderful girl. I'm glad she's gone."
Several law schools, including Harvard, refused to admit Inez because she was a woman, but she was finally accepted at New York University Law School. After earning her law degree, Inez fought for labor reform, for civil rights for blacks, and for humane treatment of inmates. She hated inequality and shams and hypocrisy; she stood for truth.
She also believed in having fun and enjoyed being a socialite. Inez believed it was possible to have a glorious time “and stand like iron for truth.” She also said she was prepared “to sacrifice every so-called privilege” she possessed “in order to have a few rights.”
Inez spent time in London and fought with the suffragettes there (even being arrested and jailed). She brought that zeal to the battle in America. She also brought a fresh face to the movement. The old faces of suffrage had been defiled as masculine women, bitter spinsters, and “abnormal” women. Inez represented the “New Woman” --- young, beautiful, professional. A reporter defined her as “a radiant exemplification of how a woman can be beautiful though a suffragist.”
The press labelled her: “The Most Beautiful Suffragist.” In reply, Inez often quoted her motto: “A girl can’t help her looks, but her looks can help her.”
For example, she almost single-handedly broke up the big “Taft campaign parade.” As the parade moved down Fifth avenue, Inez screamed through a megaphone, “Give us votes for women!” A crowd of men left the parade and came to listen to her. Within 15 minutes she converted them to suffrage.
Inez soon came to believe that trying to win suffrage state-by-state was a ridiculous strategy; a federal amendment was needed. Another young suffragist, Alice Paul, also believed in launching a federal campaign for suffrage and using the more militant tactics of the London suffragettes.
On March 3, 1913, Alice Paul organized a parade with the intent of gaining support for a federal suffrage amendment. Eight thousand women, most of them dressed in white, marched from the U.S. Capitol down Pennsylvania Avenue. There were bands and floats, and at the front was Inez Milholland, wearing a long white cape, riding a white steed, symbolizing the American Joan of Arc.
There were a half-million onlookers. Some were supporters. Some were not; they were in town to celebrate President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration the next day. These men shouted insults, spat at the marchers, and threw lighted cigar butts. Others tripped, slapped, or even beat them. It into a riot as the police stood by and did nothing. More than 100 marchers were injured and taken to the hospital. News accounts of the violence against the women endeared the suffragists and their cause to many people.
Inez was not only proud to be a suffragist but openly declared herself a “feminist.” As a feminist, she resisted marriage proposals. Several of them. Then she met Eugene Boissevain, a Hollander, and she proposed to him. He said, “No.” After Inez asked three times, he finally said, “Yes.”
Marriage kept Inez from practicing law because Eugen was a foreigner, thus as his wife, she lost her citizenship. Eugene soon became a citizen and the matter was resolved but such injustice made Inez persist in the battle for women’s rights.
In 1916, Alice Paul called her to be the “special flying envoy of the Woman’s Party.” This was the biggest and most important campaign ever waged. Organizers and speakers headed for the Western states where women had the right to vote. The intention was to get these women to cast a protest vote against President Wilson because he had not supported a federal suffrage amendment.
In early October, Inez set out from New York on a “12,000-mile swing through the West.” She said to the crowds:
Inez Milholland was in poor health but kept speaking all day and riding trains through the night to arrive at her next stop. While giving a speech in Los Angeles on October 22, she felt faint. For a few moments, she continued speaking; she directed her words at Woodrow Wilson: "Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?"
Then Inez collapsed on stage and was taken to the hospital. She died a few weeks later, on November 25, 1916, of a blood disease, pernicious anemia. She was only 30 years old.
Her body was buried in the Lewis Cemetery in the Adirondacks, but memorial services were held throughout the country. Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party (NWP) decided to hold a memorial service in the United States Capitol, the first ever for a woman there. On Christmas Day, gold and purple and white draped Statuary Hall. Women carried banners, one saying: Forward Into Light.
In her memorial address, suffragist Maud Younger said: "Inez Milholland was the flaming torch that went ahead to light the way …. With new devotion we go forth, inspired by her sacrifice ---that this sacrifice be not in vain."
The women of the NWP did not give up. They made Inez the emblem of the party and they wrote a resolution, which stated:
"One of our most beautiful and beloved comrades, Inez Milholland, has paid the price of her life for a cause, … as we look over the long backward trail through which we have sought our political liberty, we are asking, how long, how long, must this struggle go on?"
A group of 300 women brought the resolution to President Wilson on January 9, 1917. They thought the shock of Inez’s death would compel the President to support suffrage. What did Wilson do? He rebuked them, gave a defiant glance, and left the room.
The women were outraged; they were tired of asking and waiting. The next morning, twelve women of the NWP began picketing on the sidewalk in front of the White House. They stood silently holding suffrage banners, one stating: Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?
The Silent Sentinels returned day after day, through rain and snow. After six months of picketing, the police suddenly began arresting and jailing the picketers for “obstructing the highway.” Many were sentenced for 30-60 days at the Occoquan Workhouse.
November 15 is remembered as the "Night of Terror" at the workhouse. About forty guards with clubs went on a rampage, brutalizing thirty-three jailed suffragists. They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed, and knocked her out cold. Her cell mate believed Mrs. Lewis to be dead, which caused her to have a heart attack. Other women were grabbed, dragged, beaten, choked, slammed, pinched, twisted, and kicked. Some women went on hunger strikes and were force fed by a tube jammed down their throats and then liquid poured in.
What kept the women going? They did not want other women ever to have to do endure this. Eventually, the terrible treatment made front page news and the public was outraged. The prison officials were forced to release the suffragists.
A little more than a year later, the Nineteenth Amendment passed Congress. Thirty-six states ratified the amendment, and it became law on August 26, 1920.
Inez Milholland did not live to cast a vote, but she did not die in vain.
Amendment XIX of the U.S. Constitution: The right of citizens of the United States to vote
shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.