Attorney and American Suffrage MartyrAugust 6, 1886 – November 25, 1916During 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.