She Was More Than Just the ‘Most Beautiful Suffragist’Historians in the News
tags: photography, art, suffrage, Inez Milholland
In October 1916, Inez Milholland, a renegade young lawyer and ardent social reformer, collapsed onstage while eloquently pleading with more than a thousand women in Los Angeles to stand together in the battle for women’s suffrage. Run ragged from weeks of campaigning across the West while fighting strep throat and tonsillitis, she died the next month, at age 30, from pernicious anemia. The loss of their heroic, rising star devastated suffragists, who exalted her as a martyr and emblazoned her famous last words, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” on their banners while picketing Woodrow Wilson’s White House the following year.
One of the great, though tragic, chapters of the road to suffrage, Milholland’s story, like so many others of women’s history, is little known to the wider public. The history-obsessed activist artist Jeanine Michna-Bales is trying to change that. In her latest project, “Standing Together: Photographs of Inez Milholland’s Final Campaign for Women’s Suffrage,” she provides a visual account of Milholland’s journey West through a mix of photographs of landscapes and historical re-enactments, contextualized with historical ephemera.
Originally set to go on view this month for the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, but postponed because of the pandemic, “Standing Together” is scheduled to be published in book form and exhibited at PDNB Gallery in Dallas and Arnika Dawkins Gallery in Atlanta in March 2021, for Women’s History Month. But the artist has posted parts of it online.
Milholland was a firebrand long before she stepped onto the national stage. Born in Brooklyn to wealthy, progressive parents and educated at Vassar College and the New York University School of Law, she was radical even by today’s standards, having fought passionately for women’s rights, racial equality, labor reform, prison reform, and against World War I. A “new woman” of the early 20th century, she flouted social conventions, spoke freely of sex and proposed marriage to a man, Eugen Boissevain, a like-minded Dutch citizen. He accepted, they married in 1913, and the United States promptly stripped her of her citizenship, a consequence of the Expatriation Act of 1907, which required a woman to take the nationality of her husband. “She wouldn’t be able to vote, even when all women won the right, but she kept on fighting for it anyway,” Ms. Michna-Bales said. “That amazes me.”
That same year, she led about 8,000 women up Pennsylvania Avenue during the first major suffrage parade. Astride a white horse and garbed in an elegant cape and crown, she was compared by the press to a modern-day Joan of Arc and called the “most beautiful suffragist.” The moniker stuck. “I do think it helped draw crowds to see her,” Ms. Michna-Bales said. “But she was also a very charismatic person and believed so deeply in her cause, that people just listened when she spoke.”