Women We Celebrate

Inez Milholland Boissevain

1886–1916


Born in New York on August 6, 1886, Inez Milholland Boissevain learned the importance of human rights from her father, a newspaper editorialist and a reformer with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  Milholland attended Vassar College where she excelled in athletics, playing field hockey, basketball, and running track.  She also proved to be a gifted orator. When Harriet Stanton Blatch was forbidden to speak on campus, Inez gathered about fifty of her classmates to hear the suffragist speak in a cemetery.  In 1908, Inez famously became known as “the girl who broke up the Taft parade.”  As the presidential campaign parade marched by, she used a megaphone to shout “votes for women!” out of a window.  She was so compelling that hundreds of men left the parade to see and hear her speak. By the time she graduated from Vassar in 1909, she had recruited two-thirds of the student body to join her Vassar Votes for Women Club.

In addition to suffrage, Milholland was a political activist for other causes.  She was arrested after picketing with striking women shirtwaist workers, and after earning a law degree in 1912 from New York University, wrote a report on harsh prison conditions at Sing Sing. After a brief romance, she married Dutch businessman, Eugen Jan Boissevain, in 1913. As a labor attorney, Inez was involved with the Women’s Trade Union League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Child Labor Committee.

In 1913, she was recruited to the NAWSA Congressional Committee by Alice Paul.  She famously led the pre-inaugural suffrage parade held in Washington, D.C. on March 3, 1913.  Labeled the “American Joan of Arc,” she rode at the front of the procession of 8,000 participants, astride a white horse and wearing a flowing white cape.  She carried a banner that proclaimed, “Forward Out of Darkness, Leave Behind the Night, Forward Out of Error, Forward Into Light,” the eventual slogan of the National Woman’s Party.  With her graceful beauty and eloquent speeches, Inez quickly rose in prominence as the public face of the suffrage movement.

In 1915, she traveled to Europe as a journalist and correspondent during World War I.  Her articles angered the Italian government, and they ousted her from the country.  Upon her return in 1916 to the U.S., she embarked on a speaking tour of twelve western suffrage states on behalf of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. As one of the most famous leaders of the CU, Milholland had a talent for captivating audiences.  Despite pleas from her doctor to rest, Milholland worked incessantly, and eventually collapsed during a speech in Los Angeles in the fall of 1916. According to reports, the last words she spoke before fainting were, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”  Milholland died of pernicious anemia at the age of thirty on November 25, 1916.

Her sudden and untimely death shocked the nation, and Milholland was instantly declared a martyr of the suffrage movement.  Alice Paul organized a memorial service held in her honor in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol on Christmas Day, 1916.  Paul carried the banner Milholland displayed in the 1913 parade.  During the ceremony, Senator George Sutherland, author of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, said, “Had she known that her trip across the continent…was to end as it did end, she would have fearlessly gone on.”  Elizabeth Kent, wife of Senator William Kent, said that Inez was “unafraid to be herself, even though she knew that self, marching in advance with eyes on tomorrow, would not be understood by the many with eyes on today…”

On January 9, 1917, President Wilson met with a deputation of 300 women who attempted to present him with resolutions drafted during Milholland’s memorial service.  He refused and walked out on the women.  Picketing of the White House began the following day.