While America readies itself to mark the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution three years from now (presuming that the National Endowment for the Humanities is still around to fund such festivities), New Yorkers can start celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage this year, since this state gave women the vote in 1917. Among the planned activities is “Votes for Women: Celebrating New York’s Suffrage Centennial,” a large-scale exhibition that the New York State Education Department and the Office of Cultural Education will mount this autumn at the New York State Museum in Albany.
One of the New York-based heroines of that movement was a Vassar scholar/athlete named Inez Milholland, who became friends with English suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst during one of her many visits to London. Upon her return to the US for her junior year, Milholland made it her mission to galvanize American women to seek the vote. But the president of Vassar College at the time (1908), James Monroe Taylor, strictly forbade any discussion of women’s suffrage on campus. So Milholland and some of her classmates and Vassar alumnae organized a meeting in a nearby cemetery to found a renegade Vassar Votes for Women Club.
Milholland went on to get a law degree at NYU and became an activist for a variety of social and labor reforms. Talented both at oratory and political theater, she swiftly became a leader in the national Women’s Suffrage movement. In 1913, on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, she led a parade through Washington, DC astride a big white horse, wearing a crown and a long white cape, followed by some 10,000 suffragettes. Crowds of men jeered, spat on and harassed the marchers, but Milholland was afterwards likened to Joan of Arc.
In 1915 the young activist became involved in opposing US involvement in World War I, then spent some time working as a war correspondent. Her pacifist views got her fired from that assignment, so she returned to the suffrage movement, giving speeches around the country and driving herself so hard that she developed pernicious anemia.
Dead by late 1916 at the age of 30, Milholland was lionized as a martyr for Women’s Suffrage. A mountain in the Adirondacks near her family estate was renamed Mt. Inez in her honor. A younger and eventually more famous Vassar student, Edna St. Vincent Millay, considered Milholland her personal hero, and wrote a sonnet for the unveiling of a memorial to her that ends with the line, “Take up the song; forget the epitaph.” (Millay later went on to marry Milholland’s widower, Eugen Jan Boissevain.)
In a year when women around the country are once again marching for their rights by the tens of thousands, perhaps it’s time to “Take up the song” that Inez Milholland sang once again. For more biographical info, visit http://inezmilholland.org, http://inezmilhollandcentennial.com and https://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/alumni/inez-milholland.html.