This week’s guest blogger is N-YHS Bernard and Irene Schwartz Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Lauren Santangelo. If you’re interested in learning more about New York women’s history, stay tuned! In early 2017, the New-York Historical Society will be unveiling the Center for the Study of Women’s History, including a permanent gallery space devoted exclusively to local herstory.
Five thousand Japanese lanterns made their way across the Atlantic Ocean from Paris to Manhattan in 1912. New York City suffragists had ordered them for a November parade, their second procession in only six months. Some 10,000 supporters had marched from Washington Square to Carnegie Hall in their May demonstration, but this one promised to be different. It would be one of celebration, rather than one of protest, as organizers felt optimistic about the six states voting on suffrage that fall. It would march down Fifth Avenue, not up it. And it would be a nighttime parade, a first for Gotham strategists.
Parades loom large in our understanding of the woman suffrage movement. We imagine smiling women pushing strollers and waving flags as they stroll along Fifth Avenue with crowds cheering them along. Our collective memory would thrill organizers, but it elides a more complicated reality—one punctuated by reluctance, ridicule, and sometimes violence. Many movement leaders initially scoffed at the idea of street processions, considering them unladylike and fretting over their possible consequences for a cause desperate to appear respectable.
A group of suffragettes—a label applied to more militant suffragists—confronted this resistance head on when they organized the first American suffrage parade in 1908. Scheduled for a Sunday afternoon to ensure that “all classes” could participate, leaders predicted four to six thousand marchers. Forced to surrender their hopes of an official march after the police refused to issue a permit, the suffragettes unofficially walked up Broadway. While the activists did not ultimately carry their banners, walk in brigades, or have bands, suffragettes along with some 6,000 supporters did create a moving demonstration in support of the ballot. In so doing, they trampled upon a gendered, urban etiquette that stressed women’s vulnerability and raised questions about the propriety of a woman who lingered in public. The first official parade in New York City took place two years later as mainstream leaders came to appreciate the strategy’s importance. With each succeeding parade, people grew more accustomed to seeing women politicize public space and even conservative supporters came to embrace the strategy.
But activists’ plans for a November parade had the potential to undermine this grudging tolerance. Fifth Avenue during the daytime was one thing; nighttime was entirely different. Even those in the suffrage rank-and-file balked. Some worried that the 8 pm start time would breed a rowdier atmosphere; others fretted about the dangers of returning home once the demonstration concluded. Women might be accepted on the streets during the daytime, but now organizers were asking them to march at a time of day when many believed that “respectable” women should not be out in public without male escorts.
For leaders, the benefits of a torchlight parade outweighed these risks. Industrial laborers, they expected, would find the later start time more convenient. Moreover, the nighttime setting promised to create a stunning spectacle. Besides the 5,000 lanterns, men planned to wear miners’ lamps, parade marshals to wield batons topped with electric lightbulbs, and automobiles to carry searchlights. Lobbyists expected to create “one long blaze of glory” in support of the ballot—something not possible during daylight.
Organizers predicted 20,000 marchers. Actress Beatrice Forbes-Robertson was to lead the line as it trooped from 58th Street down to Union Square, where strategists planned to hold open-air meetings. Details crowded newspaper columns in the days leading up to the event. Mother Nature complicated plans, however. With rainfall expected in the evening, organizers prepared their marchers for an all-weather event.
Ultimately, 15,000 suffragists endured the rain, cold, and wind to publicize the cause, 5,000 short of organizers’ predictions. Still it was impressive. Men and women dashed to the window in some of Manhattan’s most elite restaurants to witness the “mammoth” spectacle. At Delmonico’s, management even had to remind a group seeking a better view not to stand on a dinner table.
Women’s concerns about the nighttime march proved unfounded. While small disturbances broke out along the route, newspapers make no mention of the type of disorder that marred their May parade or the violence that erupted during the 1913 Washington, D.C. demonstration. Not without glitches, the torchlight procession captured the attention of an estimated 250,000 New Yorkers. Visually, parading at night created a stunning image of unity and purpose. But, because of gendered notions of safety and propriety in the city, it also served to underscore women’s willingness to sacrifice bodily comfort for a larger political purpose. At least, one cartoonist understood the radical importance of that:
 The New-York Historical Society holds a scrapbook filled with newspaper columns detailing the 1912 parade. For more information on parades and suffragists’ use of public space more generally see: Pamela Cobrin, From Winning the Vote to Directing on Broadway: The Emergence of Women on the New York Stage, 1880-1927 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2009); Linda Lumsden, Rampant Women: Suffragists and the Right of Assembly (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997).