Last month I had the pleasure of sharing with students at Kirby Preparatory School in Santa Cruz the fascinating story of the women’s marches of 1912 and 1913 led by suffragette “General” Rosalie Gardiner Jones. Even the history buffs among them were surprised to learn that this January Women’s March on Washington is, in fact, a meaningful if not monumental re-do.
This Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington marks one of only a few times since the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic that such a large group of women have marched on the capital to ensure their voices are heard by an incoming president on inauguration weekend.
In the winter of 1913 Rosalie Jones led a determined band of marchers from New York all the way to Washington DC to join Inez Milholland’s forces for the march up Pennsylvania Avenue. Though an estimated 10,000 women marched peacefully that day, the mostly male mobs on hand for the historic event soon turned the military-styled march violent. Milholland, wearing a white cape and riding atop a white horse, purposefully recalled the woman warriors of ancient Greece. Five mounted “brigades” of women warriors quite literally had Jones’ and Milhollands’ back that historic day in 1913.
This Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington marks one of only a few times since the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic that such a large group of women have marched on the capital to ensure their voices are heard by an incoming president on inauguration weekend. History rhymes, Mark Twain is purported to have said, rather than merely repeats itself. It’s a notion that's been on my mind this winter, as I have devoted a season to giving historical presentations on historic women’s marches to middle and high schools students from Illinois to California.
The principal reason for my morning in Santa Cruz “among schoolchildren" last month was that forgotten Progressive Era activist, “General” Jones, the twenty-something year-old New York suffragette dynamo who bucked the wishes of her avowed Anti-suffragist mother to lead a two-week, 175-mile Christmastime women’s march from Broadway in Manhattan, to the state capital of Albany, New York, in 1912. Afterward, to top her own unprecedented feat, she turned right around and led her equal-rights soldiers all the way to the nation’s capital. Jones was the subject of my most recent book, and someone who I wanted to share with young people from the broader Bay Area, itself an equal-rights-for-women hotbed in the early 1900s and beyond.
Impatient with mild-mannered drawing-room activists who merely talked a good game, Jones had come to believe in an active, boots-on-the-ground variety of protest. She expressed little interest in the more shopworn versions of the women’s rights movement, which then called to mind proper ladies making pretty speeches that netted precious few results. Her marches of 1912 and 1913 deployed a military metaphor that included nom de guerres for Rosalie’s second-in-command, “Colonel” Ida Craft, her “Surgeon General” nurse Lavinia Dock and “war-correspondent” Jessie Hardy Stubbs.
The students at Kirby Prep were eager to share their favorite history-makers with me, too. I could tell by the look in their eyes after my presentation that they “got it”: that the study of social change is, in large part, an appreciation for the charisma and canniness and courage of our most memorable history-makers. Far from being a childish preoccupation, to love the exceptional characters in our collective national narrative—characters like Jones and Milholland—is to embrace the odd, eccentric, conflict-prone, and visionary newsmakers that populate our pasts and presents.
In that way and in others Mark Twain had it right: History does indeed rhyme, and thank goodness. This time, as an estimated one hundred thousand women toe the line for their march on the National Mall, it’s worth stopping to appreciate how exceptionally special such a large gathering of marching women is in American history, and to fervently hope that history’s rhyme will not take another one hundred years to ring again in Washington.
Zachary Michael Jack
Zachary Michael Jack teaches courses in Writing for Social Change and Leadership Ethics and Values (LEV) at North Central College in Naperville, IL. He is the author most recently of March of the Suffragettes: Rosalie Gardiner Jones and the March for Voting Rights (Zest Books) distributed nationally by Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt.