Inez Milholland remains famous as the beautiful Joan of Arc-like symbol of the suffrage movement. She appeared dramatically astride a white horse leading more than 8,000 marchers at the head of the March 3, 1913, suffrage parade held the day before Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C.
Born into a well-to-do New York family, she was the daughter of John Milholland, a newspaper editorialist and a reformer with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Milholland studied in schools in England and Germany before attending Vassar College, where she was a star athlete on the track team. She graduated from Vassar in 1909 and earned a law degree at New York University Law School. Milholland married a Dutch businessman, Eugen Jan Boissevain, in London in July 1913. She became a labor and children’s rights attorney and later served as a journalist and correspondent. She worked with the Women’s Trade Union League and the National Child Labor Committee.
Along with Dorothy Day, Crystal Eastman, Louise Bryant, and other activists, Milholland was part of an avant garde Greenwich Village group of progressives and socialists involved in the production of The Masses, a cutting-edge magazine that fused radical art, graphic satire, and political commentary. The Masses, begun in 1911, was shut down in 1917 because of its editor’s antiwar stance. Milholland herself protested the United States entering World War I, and at the end of 1915, she was among those who traveled on Henry Ford’s “Peace Ship,” Oscar II, to Europe.
Milholland was recruited to the NAWSA Congressional Committee’s cause by association with Alice Paul. She soon revealed a powerful ability to move crowds at rallies on behalf of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU).
By 1916 Milholland had become one of the highest-profile leaders of the CU, electrifying audiences as she traveled on a grueling speaking schedule as an envoy to 12 western suffrage states. Despite warnings from her physician, and dispatched by the similarly unflagging Paul, she persisted in touring despite pronounced ill health. The dynamic Milholland collapsed at the podium while delivering a suffrage speech in Los Angeles in the fall of 1916. She was rushed to the hospital and, despite treatment for pernicious anemia and hope of recovery, died weeks later on November 25, 1916. The front-page news shocked the nation and her fellow suffragists. Her dedication, iconic idealism, and tragic death made her a major martyr of the suffrage movement. Her last public words before her collapse were, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” Alice Paul organized Milholland’s memorial service, which was held in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol building on Christmas Day, 1916.
When Woodrow Wilson spurned a delegation that attempted to present him with resolutions crafted in Milholland’s honor in early January 1917, the NWP changed tactics from a focus on lobbying to more direct action. Within days the NWP began a new campaign of picketing the White House.