Inez Milholland Boissevain- The American Joan of Arc
Born Inez Milholland in New York on August 6,1886, she was no stranger to social reform. The eldest daughter of John and Jean Milholland, her father was a New York Tribune reporter and editorial writer and a reformer with National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). John Milholland eventually took over the as head of a company that made pneumatic tubes, which allowed the family to live in comfort. Inez spent her girlhood in a the family’s London home, and attended Kensington Highschool for Girls. This school was unique as it allowed the daughters of shopkeepers to study alongside the daughters of the upper class. In the fall of 1905, Inez returned home to start Vassar.
Her first two years of college were typical as she tried to squeeze in as much of the college experience as she could. She participated in plays, clubs and sports. However, after spending the summer between her Sophomore and Junior years back in London her interests changed. Inez had met the famous suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst, and their meeting had turned into Inez into an avid political activist. She was dedicated to bringing the cause of women’s suffrage to Vassar. However, Vassar’s president, James Monroe Taylor, was opposed as he considered it “propaganda”. He is quoted as saying the college’s mission was “not to reform society but to educate of women.” He opposed noted suffragist Jane Addams from speaking at Vassar. Inez felt the college gave the student’s the contradictory message of have high expectations….as long as you know your place.
When Harriet Stanton Blatch, another suffragist was forbidden to speak on campus, Inez organized a meeting of fifty-six of her fellow classmates to meet in a cemetery next to the college. Under a yellow banner displaying the motto, “Come, Let Us Reason Together.”, the women listened to Blatch speak. This was the beginning of the Vassar Votes for Women Club, which was headed by Inez and eventually had a debate sponsored by the college as long as no faculty spoke at its meetings. However, several faculty defied the ban and spoke in favor of women’s suffrage and the club was banned again. Inez made one final gesture in her graduation ceremony as women from the club formed pro-suffrage living tableaus in the Main building as the other students filed by.
In 1908, Inez became known as the “the girl who broke up the Taft parade.” President William Howard Taft was present in a campaign parade going by the Vassar campus. Inez used a megaphone to shout “Votes for women!” out of a window. Once she got their attention, she began giving an oration on women’s suffrage. The crowd was so fascinated with her, they left the president to go hear her speak. Despite being a captivating orator, Inez was denied admission to law school at Yale, Harvard, and Columbia only because of her sex. Eventually, she graduated with a law degree from New York University School of Law in 1912.
Inez received her “Joan of Arc” nickname when she rode a white horse at the head of 8,000 people in a pro-suffrage parade in Washington DC. This was the day before Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated in 1913, and the parade wound through a crowd of drunken men celebrating early. She wore a crown and long flowing cape and carried a banner that said “Forward Out of Darkness, Leave Behind the Night, Forward Out of Error, Forward Into Light”. This became the motto of the National Women’s Party. Her natural grace and beauty as well as her gift for speaking sent her quickly up the ranks in the suffrage movement.
That same year she met and married Dutch coffee importer Eugen Jan Boissevain, taking the bold step for the time to propose to him. He supported her in all her work and was happy to let his charismatic wife continue to fight for the causes she believed in. Although a pacifist, when war broke out in Europe, Inez travelled there and began reporting on events. Her reports angered the government of Italy so much the expelled her from the country in 1915. Returning home, she embarked on a speaking tour in favor of women’s suffrage. She was tired, and her doctors and friends begged her to rest, but the cause needed her.
After mounting the stage for a speech in Los Angeles, California in the fall of 1916, Inez collapsed. She died suddenly of pernicious anemia. According to reports, her last words were “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” Her tragic death shocked both the movement and the public. Inez was instantly a martyr for the cause. A memorial service was held for her in the Capitol on Christmas Day, 1916 by the National Women’s Party. Alice Paul carried the banner Inez had carried in the 1913 parade. During the ceremony, Senator George Sutherland, author of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, said, “Had she known that her trip across the continent…was to end as it did end, she would have fearlessly gone on.” Elizabeth Kent, wife of Senator William Kent, said that Inez was “unafraid to be herself, even though she knew that self, marching in advance with eyes on tomorrow, would not be understood by the many with eyes on today…”
Although Inez would die before seeing the passage of the 19th amendment allowing women to vote, she never lost hope. She spent her life striving for what was right and equality for all.
Sources available on request