Attorney and American Suffrage Martyr
During her brief life, New York attorney Inez Milholland Boissevain became one of the most widely recognized advocates of Votes for Women in the United States. Today, as the nation approaches the centennial of American women voting in 2020, Inez symbolizes the perseverance and sacrifices that were required to win equality for women as full American citizens. With courage, conviction, and dedication, this fallen young leader exemplified public service to the nation and an unwavering dedication to basic civil rights as the cornerstone of democracy.At a time when women had virtually no political power and no representation in government, Inez Milholland championed their civil rights, particularly the right to vote, and made substantial contributions to winning the political liberty women enjoy today. She firmly believed that winning enfranchisement would offer women a voice and a place in government, thus strengthening the nation as a whole.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in New York and London, Inez became an advocate for the rights of women while a student. When the president of Vassar College banned her woman suffrage meeting on campus, Inez led the assembled students and guests to a meeting in the cemetery across the road.
Between 1910 and 1916, she became a central figure involved in planning, speaking, and raising funds for the drive for Votes for Women in New York State. She chaired meetings, answered opponents’ arguments, lobbied state legislators, and led suffrage parades up Fifth Avenue. Robed as the “free woman of the future,” she became nationally known for her role as a mounted herald leading the great March 3, 1913 suffrage procession in Washington, D.C. that involved thousands of supporters and political figures. Four months later, she married Dutch businessman Eugen Boissevain.
Attracted to law school by a desire to protect women and children, Inez faced rejection by Oxford, Columbia, and Harvard because she was a woman. New York University finally accepted her. Even before earning a law degree in 1912, she advised and supported working women and shirtwaist strikers who had no direct political representation or money for lawyers. She believed that “the way to right the wrongs of civilization and to strike a blow at poverty was by means of concerted and intelligent political action and the making of sound laws.”
One of few women attorneys in New York, Inez specialized in criminal and divorce cases but faced prejudice and other obstacles to securing paying clients. She vigorously participated in a grand jury investigation into conditions at Sing Sing Prison and once raced to win a last minute reprieve for a laborer sentenced to die. Having seen the brutal conditions in prison, she spoke out for reform, opposed capital punishment, and assisted individual inmates with filing appeals and finding jobs.
Like her father, John Milholland, the first treasurer of the interracial NAACP, Inez opposed racial discrimination, supported the rights of workers, and advocated a wide range of reforms including international peace. At the beginning of World War I, she joined Henry Ford’s “Peace Ship,” which unsuccessfully tried to steer the European warring parties into mediation.
Woman suffrage, however, is the cause to which she is most closely linked, and the cause to which she gave her final effort. Expanding on her years of experience as a leader in New York City, Inez became a “Flying Envoy” for the National Woman’s Party on an October 1916 election year speaking tour of the west. In city after city in seven western states, she spoke with passion and conviction to women who were new voters: “Now, for the first time in our history, women have the power to enforce their demands and the weapon with which to fight for woman’s liberation.” Barnstorming for the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, she declared, “Liberty must be fought for. And, women of the nation, this is the time to fight.”
When her health failed during the strenuous tour, Inez put off medical treatment rather than quit. In late October, exhausted and overcome by pain, the young suffragist collapsed while demanding liberty on a stage in Los Angeles. A month later, despite repeated blood transfusions, she died of pernicious anemia, having just turned 30. Fellow suffragists recognized that her leadership, love of democracy, and devotion to women made her a martyr to the cause.
Inez was buried in Essex County, New York, and on Christmas Day 1916 the Woman’s Party held an unprecedented memorial for her under the rotunda in Statuary Hall in the national Capitol. She became the first woman to be so honored. A week later, aroused by her sacrifice, suffragists began to picket the White House demanding that President Woodrow Wilson support for the suffrage amendment. Throughout the year, their banners carried her final plea: “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” Inez inspired thousands of suffragists through the final, climactic years of the movement and her memory lived on in the ensuing years.
Inez Milholland Boissevain spent her life seeking justice, equality, and civil rights for American women. Because of her work, and the persistence of tens of thousands of American suffragists from 1848 to 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ensures women’s voting rights now and for future generations.
This is the full text of the letter Representative Jackie Speier sent to President Obama formally nominating Inez Milholland for the Presidential Citizens Medal.
November 4, 2015
The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President:
I have the great honor to offer the name of Inez Milholland as a nominee for the Presidential Citizens Medal.
Inez Milholland was an attorney as well as an advocate for workers’ rights, prison reform, race and class equity. But she is best remembered as a shining star in the pantheon of inspiring leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century.
As a college student, she was introduced to the suffrage movement by Emmeline Pankhurst and began her suffrage crusade as the leader of the unsanctioned Vassar Votes for Women Club. Shortly after her Vassar graduation, she came to public attention when she shouted from a window with a megaphone urging the vote for women – nearly stopping the passing Republican election campaign parade.
In many ways, Inez Milholland was the public face of the women’s suffrage movement – giving speeches at rallies, lobbying legislators and leading parades. She is perhaps best known for her role in the 1913 women’s suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., held the day prior to the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. The parade of some 8000 marching down Pennsylvania Avenue displayed nine bands, 4 motorized brigades, about 24 floats and several mounted heralds. And near the head of the parade, astride a large white horse, rode 26-year-old Inez Milholland – wearing a tiara and flowing white robes.
Inez Milholland continued working tirelessly for the women’s suffrage movement for several more years when she embarked – against medical advice because of a medical condition – on a grueling five week, eleven state tour of the western United States. At one of the stops, in Los Angeles, while speaking at a rally advocating for a constitutional amendment for universal suffrage, she suddenly collapsed. Her last public words were “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” She never recovered and died in hospital some weeks later at age 30 in 1916. Suffragists at that time termed her a “martyr” for women’s suffrage. She was given a martyr’s remembrance on Christmas Day, attended by over a thousand people, at a ceremony under the rotunda at Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol – the first woman to be honored in this way.
The aftermath of her death spurred an escalation in the activities of suffragists – they started silently picketing the White House with signs designed to put pressure on the President. One of the most popular picket signs echoed Milholland’s last public words: “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”
Inez Milholland’s leadership in the women’s suffrage movement was vital and the circumstances of her last speaking tour and death inspired the intensification of the efforts of women to achieve the vote. The ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 was, in no small way, part of a rich legacy in which Inez Milholland was an integral part.
As the centennial of her death and of the 19th Amendment approach, I can think of no better way to honor her memory than with this long overdue award. Therefore, I am proud to submit the name of Inez Milholland as a nominee for the Presidential Citizen’s Medal
Member of Congress
14th District, California