Purdue University College of Liberal Arts College of Liberal Arts logo

THiNK Magazine logo

Story's Main Image

Marching to be Heard

Fall 2013 | By Stacey Mickelbart. Photos by Mark Simons..

Community members and Purdue students participate in the March at Purdue to celebrate a century of civic action.

More than 5,000 people assembled for a parade near the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., behind a rider on a white horse, nine bands, four mounted brigades, and twenty-four floats. It was March 3, 1913, the first day of President Woodrow Wilson’s administration, and the parade started peacefully, but was soon in disarray. Men began to heckle the marchers, surging into the parade to trip and shove them. Ambulances took one hundred people to local hospitals.

Why would a presidential welcome result in such chaos? Because the parade wasn’t a welcome, but rather the first large-scale national women’s suffrage march in Washington, D.C.—and a demand for Wilson’s attention that worked. A federal cavalry troop was called out to protect the marchers, and they finished their route.

To celebrate Women’s History Month, as well as a century of public action of all kinds, the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) interdisciplinary program at Purdue commemorated it with a campus march. The idea began with the program’s director, associate professor of history T.J. Boisseau. “I realized that we really wanted to celebrate not just a single event, or even a single movement, but the broader implications of that event on social movements. What I want people to realize about that suffrage parade was that the method, tactics, and approach were then carried forth in so many other movements and marches on Washington,” she says. “From there, we see the whole century as 100 years of incredible activity on the part of American people of all different stripes.”

Seeking Visibility for All Women

Prior to the 1913 march, U.S. suffragists had used more conservative methods to gain support for their cause, circulating petitions, participating in World Fairs, and lobbying Congress as well as state officials. But Alice Paul, an American suffragist and women’s rights activist who had moved to England after college, was inspired by her far more confrontational British colleagues, who overtly sought controversy to gain attention. When she returned to the U.S., she began organizing the Woman Suffrage Parade, and six years later, the 19th Amendment granting women in the U.S. the right to vote was passed.

The 1913 march became an inspiration and a template of sorts for many political demonstrations that followed over the century, including labor and unemployment marches, demonstrations for gay rights, anti-war protests, and civil rights action. March at Purdue organizers also wanted to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the famous 1963 civil rights demonstration, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, featuring Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Students protesting human trafficking gather at the Recreational Sports Center to begin the march
Students protesting human trafficking gather at the Recreational Sports Center to begin the march.

This variety of marchers and causes was reflected in the more than 450 people who participated in the March at Purdue, winding their way through the heart of campus chanting, drumming, and singing. The march finished with a rally of speeches and song from students, organizers, and guest speakers at the France A. Córdova Recreational Sports Center.

Diversity was especially important to Purdue’s march participants, given the history of the 1913 march. Alice Paul felt that African American women should march at the back of the parade, claiming that many white women would not march with black women, and that their integration would alienate Southern support for women’s suffrage.

“The history of the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S., particularly in that period leading up to the passage of the 19th Amendment, is troubled on the issue of race,” says Nancy Gabin, associate professor of history and interim director of the American Studies program. “Although there were white women suffragists who were eager to make a common bond with women of color, to a certain extent the national organizations were unashamed to play the race card.”

When she teaches about the march, she discusses the role that both class and race played in the women’s suffrage movement. While the 1913 march was one of the largest in Washington, D.C., Gabin stresses that it certainly wasn’t the first time that people, or women in particular, had organized marches. “The labor movement had a long history of public parades and demonstrations on behalf of working class and labor issues,” she explains, “and women were often very heavily involved in those marches and demonstrations.”

Before 1913, middle and upper class women rarely advocated for causes or policies in public; becoming publicly known, or even having your name appear in a newspaper (as Mrs. John Smith, of course) was considered scandalous. The term “public woman” was a euphemism for a prostitute, explains Boisseau. Collective action was the key to crossing this line, she asserts, “Though if you look at the newspaper coverage and even the action of men on the sidelines that day, it was quite obvious that men attempted to turn what was a collective political action into a spectacle of disreputable womanhood.”

To the extent that work was considered a public activity, combining marriage and vocation was deemed unfeminine and not respectable for middle and upper class women. For this reason, “Working class women were well used to having their reputations slandered in public,” says Gabin. “The same would be true for black women; they had very high rates of labor force participation.”

All of the national black women’s organizations supported women’s suffrage, even before many of the white women’s organizations did, she explains, “in part because they understood the importance of the vote to challenge racial segregation and discrimination, but also because they understood, even on its own merits, the importance of women as a group having the right to vote.”

In the 1913 march, the 22 African-American founding members of Delta Sigma Theta sorority from Howard University marched despite discouragement from organizers like Alice Paul. Chicagoan and fellow Delta Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a prominent journalist and activist for civil and women’s rights, forcibly integrated the march by refusing to march in the back and falling in step with two other delegates from Illinois.

In 2013, Purdue’s Delta Sigma Thetas proudly led the campus march, an idea that blossomed after then-president Sloane Bowman mentioned to Boisseau that she’d be marching with sorority sisters at a similar commemorative event in Washington, D.C. 

Averiel Butts (BA 2013, Sociology) majored in law and society and marched in the Delta delegation because she’s passionate about public service—a deeply rooted value of her sorority.

Of the Deltas’ position in the back of the 1913 march, Butts says, “I am certain that that is not where they wanted to be. But they still marched proudly knowing that one day we would be able to choose where we marched. One hundred years later, it’s no surprise that we chose to march in the very front. We wanted to make our founders proud.”

Purdue’s Delta Sigma Theta chapter led the march in honor of their 1913 sorority sisters, who were asked to march in the  back of the suffrage parade
Purdue’s Delta Sigma Theta chapter led the march in honor of their 1913 sorority sisters, who were asked to march in the back of the suffrage parade.

Calling on the Community

Other delegations included the Departments of History, Political Science, and English, women’s groups from the Colleges of Technology and Science, the Black Caucus of Faculty and Staff, and Purdue’s LGBTQ Student Alliance. The celebration also welcomed community participation, including groups from churches, Vox of Planned Parenthood, Lafayette Urban Ministry, Pride Lafayette, the Lafayette Crisis Center, the Lafayette Peace Coalition, and the League of Women Voters of Greater Lafayette.

Many community groups were made aware of the march as part of service learning projects by students in Introduction to Women’s Studies classes at Purdue taught by graduate instructors Dana Bisignani and Adrianna Ernstberger, doctoral students in English and history, respectively. Bisignani divided students into groups and asked them to select community partners with causes they were interested in. Students interviewed a member of the organization and learned about its history and its work (including what was potentially feminist or grassroots about it). Students then volunteered ten hours of their time to the group and recruited a delegation for the March at Purdue. Bisignani helped her students apply for and receive a Service-Learning Student Grant from Purdue’s Office of Engagement to work with their community group and prepare materials for the march.

“It was a lot of work for them, but they learned even more outside of the classroom than they would have otherwise. I think they cemented some of the concepts they learned about in class,” says Bisignani. “They actually saw the march affecting real people in the community and saw people who were working for social justice even though they had full-time jobs.”

One of the things the march did for Bisignani’s undergraduate students was to dispel some of the misperceptions they had about activism, which she says were fueled by film scenes of the 1960s where protestors were dragged away by police. “A lot of them were saying, ‘We thought protests and activism were about scary, angry people yelling outside state capitals with picket signs.’ And that intimidated them, because they were not so sure they wanted to be scary, angry people. They didn’t want to get arrested.”

Children from the Tippecanoe Youth Center created posters declaring their own favorite causes.
Children from the Tippecanoe Youth Center created posters declaring their own favorite causes.

Through participating in planning meetings, working with their community partners, and taking part in the march, they learned how activism works, she says.

They were also inspired by the intergenerational diversity of the march, because community members they met shared personal stories about historical events the students had learned about in class. By semester’s end, Bisignani saw the results she’d hoped for as students learned to bridge feminist theory and practice. She won the 2013 Berenice A. Carroll Award for Feminism, Peace, and Social Justice for this class project.

For Kera Lovell, a doctoral student in American studies who designed the march poster and helped manage social media for the event, Purdue’s structural support contributed to its success. “So many people who worked in the administration were eager to support the march. It didn’t feel oppositional; this was people celebrating women’s history.”

And this celebratory feeling, she says, “enabled people who weren’t normally so political to engage in the way that they wanted to,” and really brought together a group of people with a wide range of interests.

Gaining Momentum for the Future

Both Lovell and Bisignani note that the long-term results of the march and rally include the feeling that there are more people on campus who share common cause than they or other students realized. Lovell has seen an increase in traffic to the social media sites she continues to maintain related to social justice, and both cite an increase in a sense of dedicated participation to student activism on campus, including in response to a series of racial incidents earlier this year.

“As a historian, I’m pretty convinced that understanding the past, remembering it, and using it as a springboard for present and future action is absolutely crucial,” says Boisseau. “It’s important that the people of this country recognize that at times they are going to have to communicate to their leaders, and to each other, what’s important to them and the urgency behind it. So if we are not modeling for students and giving them the opportunity to experience what a demonstration looks like—How do you put it together? What’s the experience of recognizing your collective interests?—then I think that we’re not actually completing their education as citizens of the U.S.”

Gabin agrees. “But even for those who don’t want to participate in collective action, a commemoration is important because it makes people think historically, and helps them understand both the historical roots of something, but also the threads through time,” she explains. “There’s a really important value to that: it expands our sense of civic identity and responsibility.”

T.J. Boisseau
T.J. Boisseau

Reflecting Program Priorities

T.J. Boisseau, associate professor of history and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) program, arrived in 2012 and immediately set a goal to learn who was active on campus in women’s issues among faculty, staff, and students. Organizing a Women’s History Month event that would draw wide participation across Purdue’s campus was one way to do that, and the 2013 anniversaries of several prominent marches provided the perfect opportunity.

The diverse participation in the March at Purdue also mirrored the discussion taking place about the name of what was then “Women’s Studies.” In considering the discipline, her colleagues and students agreed that it was important to acknowledge that women’s studies “was not centered solely on women but on the relationship between men and women, and on the political reality of gender, sexuality, sexual identity, and sexual orientation,” Boisseau says. “Because we wanted to make that more clear, we changed our name.” The change, she explains, doesn’t reflect a change in the program’s emphasis, but rather a desire to communicate that emphasis, including a new minor in LGBT studies, more effectively.

Faculty and graduate instructors in the program were inspired by the success of the service-learning projects related to the march. They hope to build on this success, making service learning a core component of the introduction to women’s studies course. Boisseau is also working with a group on campus for next year’s big event, which will celebrate the annual International Women’s Day in March 2014.

Historical Photos are LEFT: George Grantham Bain collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-00031. RIGHT: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-12512

The official program of the National American Woman Suffrage March in 1913 showed a female herald on a white horse (left), replicated in the actual parade by suffragist and labor lawyer Inez Milholland Boissevain (right).



My father taught ME at Purdue for 45 years and I graduated with a BA and was a member of Mortar Board. We both were very proud of Purdue's reputation for being ranked highly in the science, engineering, and agricultural fields. Today, our country falls behind others in these fields, and foreign students take top honors and return to their countries. LGBT studies may be seen as the politically correct action the school must take to avoid offending someone; however, I find this offensive and a waste of money. It dilutes the Purdue brand into that of "just another decent college" and the melting pot of mediocrity. Instead, make sure every graduate understands American history thoroughly, understands the Constitution and how our government works, and demonstrates the ability to think and reason rather than parrot professors or others.


From the editor

I asked T.J. Boisseau, associate professor of history and director of the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program, to comment.

First, let me thank THINK for initiating a dialogue on this important subject. I am happy to have the opportunity to correct the misconceptions expressed in this letter. Likely the writer is not familiar with the curriculum of LGBT Studies or with the discipline of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, as the premise of the opinion expressed is wrong in two ways: 1. LGBT and WGS Studies are extraordinarily challenging fields of scholarship to master, as any of the students enrolled in our courses can attest to, and 2. the intelllectual insights these fields introduce to students are crucial not only to students' future citizenship responsibilities but also to the future career success of Purdue STEM students (as much as any student group on campus).  In the latter case, science is harmed when issues of diversity—surrounding the participation of women and people of color in scientific practice, for example—remain subterranean and invisible. Every scientific authority, including the National Science Foundation, has made this a central plank of their recommendations for engineering and STEM education going forward in the 21st century. Furthermore, future employers have told us they expect and benefit from employees, even those employed in the most technical or abstract fields, who are sophisticated and deeply informed about these critical issues. In the former case of responsible citizenship, any casual follower of national news will have to admit that issues of gender, sexuality, race, and class are at the heart of the most explosive and deeply wrenching debates a responsible citizen will be weighing in on now and as our nation goes forward. As a university committed to excellence and relevance, it is our responsibility to educate for a better world as well as successful, productive, contributing, and prosperous alumni. I am entirely sure the WGSS program, inclusive of the type of event that the 2013 march represents, is a crucial component of that future. If we do our job well at Purdue, lack of awareness of how important—as well as intellectually challenging and stimulating—these concepts and ideas are will be a thing of the past very soon.

T.J. Boisseau

Share via E-mail


Comments will be added to the story after review by a moderator. Name and e-mail address are optional, but if you would like an email response to your comment, please indicate this and provide your contact details.