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On March 3rd, 1913 our country was preparing to inaugurate Woodrow Wilson as the 28th President. He won easily over incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft and Bull Moose Party candidate Teddy Roosevelt. Wilson ran on a platform of liberal reform. Democrats took control of Congress in that 1912 election resulting in their control of the government. Wilson and the Democrats soon passed multiple progressive laws.
Even so, Wilson was hardly a great progressive. In many ways he was racist and sexist. He extended laws that prevented equal employment opportunities for African-Americans. He refused to desegregate the Army and Navy. He signed the infamous Alien and Sedition Act which widely discriminated against immigrants. He also turned a deaf ear to the rising support for women’s suffrage. When suffrage advocates were arrested, jailed and later began hunger strikes to protest their treatment, he refused to intervene.
His haughty attitude toward women was on full display on March 3, 1913 – the day before his inauguration. He arrived at the Washington DC train station and was greeted by almost nobody. The tens of thousands who had come to DC for the next day’s inauguration were lined along Pennsylvania Avenue to watch the first ever Women’s Suffrage March – initiated to call the nation’s attention to the fact that women had played no role and had no vote in the Presidential election. Wilson had refused to meet with, speak at or otherwise support the Suffrage march. He declared that Suffrage was an issue to which he had not given much thought.
But hope, for women, was in the air on that March day just over one-hundred years ago. The Women’s Suffrage March on Washington was the first national protest by women. Alice Paul, the leader of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, had decided women should emphasize peaceful acts of protest – marches, picketing, sit-ins and hunger strikes – instead of merely offering mostly ignored opinion columns and polite petitions.
Over 8000 marchers participated in that day’s parade. Delegations from thirty countries and all forty-eight states marched. Near the end of the column of marchers were hundreds of men who supported women’s suffrage. They endured catcalls questioning their manhood and jeers telling them to wear skirts. Sadly, at the very back of the parade column were African-American women placed there by organizers who feared losing the support of Southerners.
The parade leaders, despite that act of injustice, employed striking visual symbols to represent ideals of democracy and human rights. Many women wore all white with colorful scarves. Others dressed up to resemble the Statue of Liberty and Lady Columbia – the symbolic figure of freedom. Bands played the Star-Spangled Banner and other patriotic songs. Floats representing ideals such as liberty, justice, charity and peace were in the parade. At the very front – leading the marchers toward the capital and announced by trumpets sounding a fanfare – was twenty-seven year old attorney and leading Suffrage advocate Inez Millholland. With flowing hair, riding a white horse, wearing a long white cape and carrying a white banner, her appearance was designed to invoke the image and symbolism of Joan of Arc. Like her, Inez was a peaceful woman warrior leading her followers in a righteous cause.
Sadly, as in many cases when non-violence confronts hate, the marchers were attacked. Soon after the march began, thousands of men surged into the street to block the women. Marchers were taunted, groped, beaten and forced to push their way through leering and cursing men. Ambulances rushed to the scene. Over two-hundred women marchers were injured and hospitalized. The police did nothing to stop the violence. Many joined in attacking the women.
Press coverage of the mob riot against marchers was sympathetic. Headlines around the country the next day spoke not of Wilson’s inauguration but of the abuse suffered by Suffrage marchers. Public outcry about male behavior toward the women was strong. Congress soon held hearings about police conduct and, more importantly, about Women’s Suffrage.
The parade and the image of men attacking innocent women asking for the right to vote are seen by many historians and herstorians as THE pivotal event that prompted Congress and others to seriously take up women’s suffrage. Inez Milholland, dressed in a white robe and atop a white horse, was the visual symbol and leader of it all.
She had been recruited by Suffrage leaders to be their leader for a number of reasons. She was strikingly beautiful which countered stereotypes that Suffragettes were not feminine. But Milholland was more than a pretty face. She had been a leader in the Suffrage movement for many years beginning during her time at Vassar college where she organized one of the first ever college Suffrage protests. She later applied to Ivy League Law Schools but was rejected because women were not allowed. She was eventually admitted to NYU school of law and became one of the nation’s first female lawyers. She represented countless progressive causes – the NAACP, the peace movement, children’s rights, union workers, immigrants and prisoners.
Milholland was a highly effective speaker and she became the spokesperson for Women’s Rights – giving hundreds of impassioned speeches across the country. After her fame had risen to new heights, she embarked on a grueling national speaking tour in behalf of universal suffrage. Diagnosed with a form of pernicious anemia and advised by doctors to cancel the tour and rest, she refused. During a speech in Los Angeles in 1916, she collapsed unconscious. She died a few days later at the age of only 30. She had literally become a modern Joan of Arc martyr for women’s rights.
In June of 1919, the House of Representatives and the Senate passed the 19th amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote. In 1920, after two-thirds of the states also ratified the amendment, it became law. Inez Milholland was credited at the time as the brave leader who had taken up the banner for women’s rights. Today, she is one of America’s unsung and mostly forgotten heroines.
On her death, the Philadelphia Public Ledger newspaper wrote,
“Beautiful and courageous, Inez Milholland embodied more than any other American woman the ideals of that part of womenkind whose eyes are on the future. She embodied all the things which make the Suffrage Movement something more than a fight to vote. She meant the determination of modern women to live a full free life, unhampered by tradition.”
Our purpose in remembering Inez is to undertake more than a history lesson. It is, instead, to find spiritual inspiration from her life and the example she set. Woodrow Wilson, with all of his liberal, arrogant paternalism, did not cause the passage of women’s suffrage. Nor did an all male Congress. It took everyday women like Inez and countless women like her to effect change.
Most importantly, as the Philadelphia newspaper wrote, Inez Milholland stood for the political, economic, social and personal empowerment of women. She not only demanded that each person, no matter their gender, has dignity and value, she lived in a way that asserted the kind of inner confidence equal to that of men. As a self-actualized woman, she defied the traditions that allowed only men to become lawyers. She later married a dutch businessman but she refused to be confined within the limits of traditional marriage. She had her own life. She insisted, with his consent, on an open marital relationship where she controlled her own sexuality and destiny. She used her beauty and sex appeal to advantage – proving that women were not merely sex objects and mothers, but that, like men, they were intelligent and capable.
Women at that time could be legally raped by their husbands, contraception and abortion were unavailable, domestic violence was not prosecuted, women could not initiate a divorce, they were left penniless if they did divorce and any property they owned or money they made became that of their husbands. Inez refused to live by those standards and, in doing so, fought the battle for gender equality by her own life example.
In the nearly one hundred years since women gained legal equality with men, the fact remains however that women have yet to achieve the parity that Inez advocated. Women today comprise 52% of our population. They now earn more college and graduate degrees then do men. But they still make only 78 cents to every dollar a man does. Out of 535 members in Congress, only 90 are women. Out of 50 governors, 5 are female. Of the Fortune 500 corporation CEO’s, only 22 are women. Females comprise only a third of all practicing doctors and lawyers. Less then 10% of all Silicon Valley technology entrepreneurs are women. In churches across America, 61% of members are women and yet only 12% of all clergy and 23% of lay leaders are women.
In a word, why? Why are these inequalities still present? Sadly, our culture, our religions and our education systems all diminish the self-confidence of young girls and women. At early ages girls are told they should act in certain ways – to not compete, to not speak too loud, to not be aggressive, to not be the word that rhymes with witch. Most boys, on the other hand, are told to be the exact opposite.
Studies show that most women believe they must be nearly perfect before they will have the confidence to take risks in work or career – to seek a promotion, to ask for a raise, to pursue a job that is highly competitive. As a result, many women tend to pull back, self-defeat and hesitate in taking the kinds of risks that men routinely pursue to assert and advance themselves. Men are generally more willing to pursue highly competitive jobs, to speak first in, and verbally dominate meetings, to ask for pay raises and promotions even if they are only marginally competent. As one psychologist puts it, most men have an honest over-confidence in themselves – they truly believe they are great. Many women, on the other hand, have an honest lack of self-confidence in their abilities. They truly believe they are less than competent.
According to neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine of the University of California at San Francisco and author of the book The Female Brain, all women and a few men have an enlarged area of the brain, the anterior cortex, that initiates emotions. Because of this, women experience both good and bad emotions more frequently. They feel greater numbers of self-diminishing emotions like incompetence, depression, worry, doubt and fear. Most men experience these too but not in the same number. Of added benefit for men, they have been conditioned by society and by high levels of testosterone to move past such negative feelings, to feel confident and to assert themselves. Women do the opposite. The female brain with its larger emotion causing cortex causes girls and women to tell themselves they should hold back, they should avoid “leaning in”, they should hesitate taking on many challenges.
The lesson of Inez Milholland is not just that she worked for gender equality. It is that she personified self-empowerment in ways typically only men exhibit. At a time when gender inequality was far worse than today, she was able to find within herself the courage to go beyond the social and legal barriers to success – to pursue an education, to have a career, to speak her mind, to confront injustice and hatred, to conduct a marriage on her own terms, to control her own sex life.
Spiritually, she discovered and then used the power we have all been given by whatever it is we believe to be god. That gift from our creator is to exercise the personal freedom innate to humanity, to find our purpose, to live and serve others in ways that maximize our abilities.
The continued task for any of us, me included, is to let go of self-doubt, to change the destructive inner voice and instead find inner peace and self-confidence. We can realize cognitive change by purposefully banishing negative thoughts of worry, doubt and fear and replace them with positive ones of empowerment. No longer should we allow ourselves to engage in negative self talk – I’m no good, I’m unattractive, not competent, weak, powerless, hopeless. Instead, we can and should remember ways we have achieved, ways we have taken risks and made a difference, ways in which we have successfully empowered ourselves. It may be cliche to say, but we become what we believe we are capable of achieving.
There are likely far more unsung heroines in American history than there are unsung heroic men. Most women are simply not ones to proverbially toot their own horns. And yet women like Inez Milholland show us the way. They provide examples of strength and power used not for the self, but for the greater good. Ultimately, when women are denied equal opportunities, when they are taught to deny their own abilities, the world is diminished. Any person’s self-defeating emotions hold them and humanity back. Our world is then filled with wounded people who hide in the dark, who limp along in life unfulfilled and sad. But it is our task, both collectively and individually, to heal such hurt. For women who lack inner confidence, who too easily listen to the jeers of a racist, sexist and homophobic society, they must act like Inez Milholland, like Joan of Arc. They must change the way they think about themselves. They must ride their white horses, unfurl their banners and boldly go forth with the power to be capable and powerful – to be heroines for justice and for good.
I wish you all much peace and joy…