Although the regal, once-renowned social reformer, pacifist and lawyer Inez Milholland Boissevain has faded into obscurity over the last 100 years, American women owe her a great debt for her sacrifice that led to their right to vote.
This debt becomes crystal clear thanks to Jeanine Michna-Bales, a Dallas-based artist who creates meticulously researched, multimedia historical work. On Tuesday, March 8, at 7 p.m. she will give a virtual presentation of her latest project, “Standing Together: Photographs of Inez Milholland’s Final Campaign for Woman’s Suffrage,” 2016–2020, to celebrate International Women’s Day 2022. The event is sponsored by the Evanston History Center and co-hosted by the Evanston Women’s History Project.
Sent by the National Woman’s Party in October 1916, Milholland and her sister Vida traveled through eight Western states in three weeks, educating people and rallying support for their cause. Their trip was packed relentlessly with street meetings, luncheons, press interviews, teas, auto parades, dinner receptions and speeches in majestic theaters and halls.
Michna-Bales researched and mapped out Milholland’s campaign West, from Chicago to Cheyenne, Wyo., to Reno, Nev., to Los Angeles, and stops in between. As Michna-Bales retraced the suffragist’s journey, she photographed Western landscapes, which Milholland mentioned in letters to her husband Eugene Boissevain; speaking venues; suffragist dresses and historical enactments based on events Milholland recorded. The project combines photography, newspaper clippings, portions of Milholland’s speeches and ephemera such as letters and telegrams that she wrote across 12,000 miles.
A grueling cross-country campaign
The campaign was so punishing that Harriot Stanton Blatch, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter, and other notable suffragists dropped out before they finished. On the first leg of the journey, Michna-Bales explained, the sisters initially traveled in a private train car, but the press found out and lambasted them for that luxury. They took to traveling overnight, when sleeping berths were sold out, and once spent a long train ride in a mail car with no food or water. As the campaign stretched on, Milholland’s health began to suffer and she grew sicker by the day.
Yet, Milholland had endured physical hardship as a suffragist before. In 1913, she led 8,000 women up Pennsylvania Avenue on a white horse in the first major suffrage parade in Washington, DC.
“The parade got very violent, very quickly,” Michna-Bales noted. “Men crowded the streets, throwing women off floats, spitting on them, beating them. But Inez kept the parade going and got them to the Capitol steps.” Press reports of the event actually helped build sympathy and support among mainstream Americans for the Suffragist movement.
Unfortunately, Milholland did not fare as well in 1916. She collapsed while delivering a speech on a stage in Los Angeles, but later finished it sitting in a chair. Vida convinced her to go to the hospital, and she died a month later at age 30. She had been suffering from tonsillitis and strep throat, and the cause of death was listed as pernicious anemia. She did not live to see the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.
Synchronicity lights the path ahead
As Michna-Bales finished research on the birth of the anti-slavery movement for her award-winning work on the Underground Railroad, she read about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, who were denied entry to an anti-slavery society meeting in England in 1840 because of their gender. But they emerged triumphant at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and launched the women’s suffrage movement. From that point on, Michna-Bales researched women’s suffrage and began thinking about how she could approach it.
“[The American Women’s Suffrage Movement lasted] over 100 years and involved countless women in every city and state across the country,” Michna-Bales said. “I was wondering how I could make a compelling, visual story about it.”
Laid up after knee surgery, Michna-Bales delved into Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement by Robert P. J. Cooney. That’s where she found the answer to her question – a postcard of Milholland marching in a suffrage parade, carrying a banner that read “Forward Out of Darkness/Leave Behind the Night/Forward Out of Error/Forward into Light.”
The similarity of those words to Michna-Bales’ earlier artwork, “Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad,” was startling.
“I thought, ‘That’s a sign from the universe,’” she said.
Admission is $10. EHC Members Free.
Registration Required. Click here to register.
Michna-Bales’ website, https://www.standingtogether-project.com, lists several educational resources, including a glossary, a lesson plan and a bibliography. Visit https://suffrage2020illinois.org/ for more on how Illinois granted women’s suffrage.