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More than a Fight to Vote

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

She has been called the Joan of Arc of the suffrage movement and often seen astride a white horse in photographs while leading more than 8,000 marchers at the head of the March 3, 1913, suffrage parade held the day before Woodrow Wilson's presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C. She was an activist and social reformer and a woman willing to champion the causes of anyone—women, laborers, children or the poor—who found themselves disenfranchised. Dedicated to social equity regardless of class or gender, she advocated and demonstrated alongside other great social reformers in campaigns of letter writing, speeches and rallies.

Inez Milholland was born on August 6, 1886, in Brooklyn, New York, into a well-to-do New York family. She was the eldest daughter of John Elmer Milholland, a newspaper editorialist and a reformer with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who eventually established a pneumatic mail tube business that afford his family a very privileged life both in New York and London. Her mother, Jean Torrey Milholland, provided her children with much culture and intellectual stimulation with trips to museums, theater and much physical exercise. She had one sister, Vida and a brother, Jack.

Most of her younger years were spent in London where she attended the Kensington High School for Girls. Kensington was a nondenominational private school that stress freedom from class distinctions in an effort toward class equity. This probably was one of the greatest influences for her work in later life.

When it was time to choose a college Inez knew she wanted to study in the United States and chose Vassar. Initially the Vassar would not accept her education certificate from Kensington. Her parents sent her to the Willard School for Girls in Berlin so that she could earn a certificate that was acceptable to Vassar. Finally, in the fall of 1905, she traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York, and at Vassar was successful in passing the entrance examination.

During her time at Vassar, she always took a full schedule of classes and was very focused on her studies wanting to get all that she could out of her college experience. In her first year she played Romeo in Romeo and Juliet which was the first of may roles she played in student productions. She was active in sports playing basketball, golf, tennis and field hockey. She was na outstanding athlete and in her second year broke the college’s shot-put record and in her third year she won the college cup for best all round athlete, while serving as president of the junior class. She also participated in the Current Topics Club, the German Club, the debating team and the Socialist Club. I has been noted that she was very popular on campus and while a very outgoing and active student she was quite unconventional in her approach to things and was always looking for new or alternative ways of doing things.

During a stay in London just before her junior year at Vassar she became an ardent political radical after she met the aristocratic suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. She witnessed Pankhurst and her followers in the Women’s Social and Political Union, take a more aggressive approach to women gaining the vote. Inez took part in some of the demonstrations in England and when she returned to Vassar in the fall, she wrote an article in the school newspaper stating that she found the efforts of American women to gain the vote quite disappointing in comparison to the women in Great Britain.

She was determined to bring the passion she had witnessed in England with Pankhurst and her followers to Vassar. However, the president of Vassar, James Monroe Taylor was completely and unshakably opposed to any mention of the subject. He called it propaganda and he felt it was his duty to protect students from it. He said the mission of his school was to educate women, not reform society. As a matter of fact, he prohibited Jane Adams from speaking at Vassar while she was doing a speaking tour that included Bryn Mawr, Smith, Wellesley, Mt. Holyoke and Radcliffe! He felt strongly that Vassar women were given freedom and high aspirations in academia but were told in social realms to remain in their place.

As you may imagine, this did not sit well with our political radical, Inez. With any discussion of suffrage strictly forbidden on campus, toward the end of her junior year she began meetings in a tiny local cemetery adjacent to the campus. Here beneath an overhang of trees, forth undergraduates, ten alumnae suffragist representatives from surrounding areas, met under a bright yellow banner that read “Come, Let Us Reason Together.” These meetings were the beginning of the Vassar Votes for Women Club which continued to meet off campus and grow under Milholland’s leadership.

“Not to know what things in life require remedying is a crime…It leaves you at the mercy of events - it lets life manipulate you - instead of training you to manipulate life.” Inez Milholland

At last, in her senior year, her tireless efforts paid off and President Taylor allowed a suffrage de bate with the understanding that absolutely no faculty were to speak. The debate did not go as planned and a number of professors stepped up to voice their complete support of women’s suffrage. Taylor was outraged and reassumed his policy of strict silence on the issue of suffrage on campus. The women were muzzled once again.

Just before her graduation made one final, and strong pro suffrage gesture. Abiding by the letter of Taylor's mandate, Milholland staged a series of living tableaux in several student rooms in Main Building featuring fellow students, silently demonstrating through posters and the various settings, as hundreds of invited students filed slowly by, taking in all of the information on the benefits of suffrage.

After graduating from Vassar in 1909, Inez made her first appearance as a suffrage orator speaking through a megaphone from a window in a building where a campaign parade for President William Howard Taft was passing by. When she began to speak hundreds of people left the parade to listen to her speak. Her reputation began on this day as one of the most powerful, persuasive and beautiful orators in the entire suffrage movement.

She wanted to continue her education and that same year she applied to law schools at Yale, Harvard, and Columbia but was rejected solely on the basis of her gender. Not to be deterred, she entered the New York University School of Law from which she earned her law degree in 1912. Her suffrage work continued in earnest as well as other social activism during this time. She participated in the shirtwaist and laundry worker striped in New York City for which she was arrested.

It was in1913, the 27 year old activist and suffragist, made probably er most memorable public appearance. She had assisted in organizing a large suffrage parade in Washington D.C., just the day before President Woodrow Wilson was to be inaugurated. She appeared majestically and quite memorably, astride a large white horse, riding through crowds of drunken men, wearing a crown and a sweeping, long white cape. In her suffrage work, as well as her other advocacies, Inez Milholland engaged in a constant struggle with those in power to recognize the humanity of all classes and genders.

Later that year Inez met and married a Dutch coffee importer, Eugen Jan Boissevain. After a brief but intense courtship she proposed to him aboard a ship that was taking them both to England. That union was most non traditional as both were believers in free love and both considered their relationship a fusion between minds, souls, and bodies. He was always a strong supporter of his wife’s endeavors and supported her consistently. She became a labor and children's rights attorney and worked with the Women's Trade Union League and the National Child Labor Committee. She tried to make judges, lawyers, business owners and elected officials see that the hearts and minds of those most marginalized by society were just as valid as were those of the powerful.

Her crusades on behalf of suffrage continued in both England and the United States. In 1915, she joined the Ford Peace Ship in an effort to stop World War I through negotiation. During that time she also served as a war correspondent until she was let go from that position because of her pacifist views. In 1916 she returned to the United States and joined the National Wome’s Party supporting a universal suffrage constitutional amendment. She toured the united states once again as an outstanding orator. During an address in Los Angeles on October 18, 1916, she suddenly collapsed and a few short weeks later the 30 year old activist, orator and tireless political radical died as a result of pernicious anemia.

The Philadelphia Public Lodger said this about her: “Beautiful and courageous, she embodied more than any other American woman in the ideals of that part of womenkind whose eyes are on the future. She embodied all the things which make the Suffrage Movemet something more than a fight to vote. She meant the determination of modern women to live a full free life, unhampered by tradition.”

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