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She was more than just the ‘most beautiful suffragist’

In October 1916, Inez Milholland, a renegade young lawyer and ardent social reformer, collapsed onstage while eloquently pleading with more than 1,000 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 reenactments, contextualized with historical ephemera.

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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 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 and prison reform, and against World War I.

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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,” 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,” 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.”

Well aware of her talents, the National Woman’s Party sent her West in the fall of 1916. By that time, most women could vote in 12 states, from Illinois to California, while those in the East were still fighting for the right. For the National Woman’s Party, the only way forward was a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women nationwide the right, but Wilson and his fellow Democrats showed no support. Pinning their hopes on defeating his bid for reelection that fall, suffragists concentrated their efforts out West, enlisting women like Milholland for the task.

Calling on female voters to stand together and elect Wilson’s pro-amendment Republican opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, Milholland made 50 speaking engagements in eight states in 28 days, traveling with her sister, Vida, by train and by car, by day and by night, as her health deteriorated. “It was heartbreaking reading her letters to her husband as the trip progressed, knowing that she was pushing herself too hard,” said Michna-Bales, who spent the last four years researching, mapping out and photographing Milholland’s path West, from Chicago to Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Reno, Nevada, to Los Angeles, and points in between. “She was one determined woman. And that is what I wanted to convey through the series.”

Michna-Bales took more than 90 color photographs, juxtaposing some with images she created from excerpts from the suffragist’s speeches and letters, as well as local newspaper clippings about her visits. To take us back a century, the artist used digital processes to age some of the images so they resemble autochromes, a popular method of coloring images at the time.

Michna-Bales, who is based in Dallas, came to the subject of suffrage while researching abolitionists for her award-winning photo essay, “Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad” (2012-2015). “The suffrage movement was really born out of the anti-slavery movement,” she said. “It hit home that for a very long time ‘democracy’ only applied to certain people — white men.”

After reading through her letters and telegrams, National Woman’s Party papers and newspaper accounts, Michna-Bales traced the suffragist’s path and spent weeks traveling along it. “I tried to get in her head to imagine seeing things through her eyes,” she said. Her photographs of landscapes show some of the same dramatic open skies and unspoiled mountains and deserts that Milholland had described poetically in dozens of intimate letters to her husband. For the historical reenactments, the artist outfitted friends and volunteers from the League of Women Voters in period dress and arranged for the use of vintage transportation and buildings.

Michna-Bales is trying to paint a bigger picture of her remarkable journey. “I wanted to showcase what she was going through and doing, as well as what she represented,” she said. For instance, numerous women stand in for Milholland — old, young, white, Black.

The series opens with “Ready for Battle” (2019), an image of a young woman in a cape, sash and crown holding an American flag like a sentinel atop a grassy hill. It closes with “Transitioning” (2019), a shot of a woman in a white dress wading into the waves of the Pacific.

“I imagined her walking off into the ocean and that is the last we see of her as she shifts from the physical body to whatever comes next,” the artist explained. “She left such a legacy behind. I feel like she is still with us, guiding us from the other side, and I wanted to convey that.”

In between, we see more concrete examples of Milholland’s daily routine. She rarely came up for air. “A Wonderful Argument” (2019), for instance, shows a reenactment of a woman and train conductor conversing. The artist paired it with a typewritten excerpt from a letter to Milholland’s husband that reads, “Just been having a wonderful argument with the conductor and Pullman-car conductor — got them over to our side.” Such moments come across as energizing highs amid draining stretches of endless train travel.

The underlying tragedy of her escalating illness is always lurking. “She wrote about ‘doctoring’ herself with drugs she was given to get through the trip: iron, arsenic and strychnine,” recalled Michna-Bales, who interspersed the project with gauzy, luminous landscapes that reflect the drugged and feverish state she imagined Milholland enduring.

It was a punishing endeavor even for a healthy young woman, and it’s hard to imagine how strong-minded and devoted Milholland must have been to have persisted as long as she did. “She made such a sacrifice so we could vote,” Michna-Bales said. “So many women did. And today, as so many Americans face attacks on their voting rights, those sacrifices feel especially relevant.”

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c.2020 The New York Times Company

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