“I am trying to discharge my own individual debt to society by improving the conditions of life for women and children.” – Inez Milholland
Early Years & Education
Inez Milholland Boissevain was born into a progressive and affluent family in Brooklyn, New York, on August 6th, 1886. Her father was a successful businessman who advocated for peace, while her mother was a committed suffragist. They greatly influenced Inez, encouraging her to challenge societal norms and use her privilege to advocate for social reform.
The Milhollands moved to London when Inez was a child, providing her with a cosmopolitan upbringing and exposure to European culture. In 1901, the family returned to the United States and settled in the rural community of Lewis, New York.
In 1905, Inez entered Vassar College, an all-women’s institution. The college was a wellspring of young women eager to learn, and Inez was no exception. And alongside her learnings, it was here that her enthusiasm for social reform blossomed. She formed the Vassar Votes for Women Club and gained a reputation as a feminist and social reformer. But her activism often clashed with the conservative college administration. She was suspended multiple times for her suffrage-related activities. However, these punishments strengthened her courage, determination, and resolve for women’s rights.
Upon graduating from Vassar in 1909, Inez enrolled at the New York University School of Law. There, she faced discrimination and prejudice as one of the few women studying law. But her unwavering determination carried her through. While at law school, she joined the Women’s Trade Union League and the National Child Labor Committee, her commitment to social justice growing ever deeper.
Women’s Suffrage Movement
Eloquent, charismatic, and beautiful, Inez was ideal as a spokesperson for the cause. She became a key figurehead in the movement as she worked with prominent suffragists like Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and Harriot Stanton Blatch.
1913 brought forth the most iconic moment of Inez Milholland’s working life. Thousands of women gathered in Washington, D.C., on March 3rd for the Women’s Suffrage Parade. The parade was organized by suffrage leaders Alice Paul and Lucy Burns to make a powerful statement for women’s rights. And at the forefront of it was Inez Milholland.
Dressed in a flowing white cape and a crown of stars, Inez rode a white horse, leading the procession of an estimated 8,000 women down Pennsylvania Avenue. Her image as the “Suffrage Joan of Arc” captivated the nation and became an enduring symbol of the suffrage movement.
In addition to her work for women’s rights, Inez championed other social causes. She fought for the rights of workers and African Americans, protested against child labor, and advocated for prison reform. Inez also supported the peace movement and was a Women’s Peace Party member.
In 1915, Inez married Dutch businessman and feminist Eugen Jan Boissevain. Their marriage, unorthodox for its time, was a testament to their shared belief in gender equality. The couple defied traditional gender roles, supporting each other in their respective pursuits and activism.
In 1916, Inez’s dedication to women’s suffrage led her to join the National Woman’s Party, whose confrontational approach to activism aligned with her fiery spirit. That same year, she embarked on a grueling speaking tour, traversing the western states to rally support for the cause.
Inez’s relentless pursuit of justice took a toll on her health. The punishing speaking tour left her fatigued and plagued with headaches. Yet, she persisted, unwilling to let her body betray her heart’s convictions.
One fateful evening on October 22nd, 1916, at Blanchard Hall in Los Angeles, Inez collapsed during a speech. The doctors diagnosed her with pernicious anemia, a life-threatening condition. As the autumn leaves fell around her, Inez Milholland’s health deteriorated. And on November 25th, 1916, at the young age of 30, she succumbed to the complications of her illness.
Her tragic death shocked the nation and galvanized the women’s suffrage movement. Inez’s final public words, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” resonated across the country, becoming a rallying cry for suffragists fighting for the right to vote.
Four years after Inez’s death, her dream came to fruition when the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote.
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Top photograph – Miss Inez Milholland. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/94506341/> / Second photograph – Inez Milholland Boissevain, wearing white cape, seated on white horse at the National American Woman Suffrage Association parade, March 3, Washington, D.C. [March 3] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/97510669/>.