Early risers saw a strange sight on Belair Road Saturday morning: exuberant women marching in the rain with yellow sashes and “Votes for Women” banners, just as the women they were celebrating marched in that same spot 100 years ago.
The community of Overlea (just north of the Baltimore city line) was commemorating its unsung place in the American women’s movement. On February 23, 1913, it was a stop along the way for suffragists marching from New York to Washington to press the government to grant women the vote.
“We thank you God for women!” said Rev. Karen Davis, pastor of the Mt. Washington-Aldersgate Overlea Chapel, United Methodist Church, blessing the mostly-female crowd of about 200.
“Foot-stomping, passionate, out-loud, powerful women. Bruised souls whose blistered feet marched, marched, marched to the beat of those two soul-swaggering sisters: justice and equality!” Davis intoned.
Clad in period attire (a long black coat, accessorized by a carpetbag and parasol) Davis channeled the spirit of her feminist foremothers with gusto.
As the marchers assembled at the Overlea-Fullerton Community Center for a symbolic hike up the hill to the Natural History Society building, Davis belted out snatches of “Sister Suffragette,” from the movie Mary Poppins.
State Senator Katherine Klausmeier, meanwhile, in her remarks, stressed the difficulty of the 230-mile journey, joined in some cities by hundreds but completed start-to-finish by about 16.
“The roads weren’t paved – they were rutted and muddy, there were chickens walking in the road – the women were taunted,” said Klausmeier, honorary chair of the event, hosted by the Overlea Community Association and the Natural History Society.
Others imagined the hostile reaction the women must have gotten from husbands and family-members when they announced plans to embark on what turned out to be a 17-day journey.
“They put up with that,” Klausmeier said. “They did it for our rights, for women to be able to vote.”
But as old clippings from the New York Times reveal, the suffragettes’ journey involved some bruised feelings and “a mutiny in the ranks,” as well as bravery.
The basic story has long been known in the community, said event co-chair Doris Franz-Poling: “It’s part of our history.”
Realizing that the centenary of the march was coming up, community members hustled to plan a major event around it, inviting national and local women lawmakers, Girl Scout troops, the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, community leaders and businesses.
But while the “suffrage hike” led by by “General” Rosalie Gardiner Jones and “Colonel” Ida Craft may be known to many in Overlea, others will need a history refresher.
These walks (from New York City to Albany in 1912 and to Washington in 1913) were undertaken by activists pushing to call attention to the cause. (They didn’t succeed until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was ratified.) As the Maryland segment of the primary north-south road – today’s Route 1 – at the time, Belair Road was the route.
The marchers had planned a stop in Overlea but got separated. When the slower members, including a “footsore” Col. Craft, reached the community, they found that Gen. Jones and others had pushed on to the next stop – “good rooms in the Hotel Stafford” in Baltimore” – a day early.
A “defiant” Col. Craft would have none of it. Noting that the marchers were tired and that Overlea had been prepared to welcome them with “a feast,” Craft insisted on staying and told The Times that Gen. Jones was “wrong . . . to slight southern hospitality.”
Women Tripped and Shoved
The Times writer (whose byline and gender are not known) dwells in great detail, in two lengthy stories, on the “mistake” or “snub” and subsequent “strained nerves” caused by the women’s disagreement.
In Baltimore, the author notes, Gov. Goldsborough “will welcome the women as hikers, not as suffragists” since he is “anti-suffragist.”
When they finally got to Washington, the group joined a parade of 5,000 people considered one of the most dramatic events in the suffrage campaign. “Women were jeered, tripped, grabbed, shoved, and many heard ‘indecent epithets’ and ‘barnyard conversation,’” according to this Library of Congress summary of news coverage of the event.
“Instead of protecting the parade, the police ‘seemed to enjoy all the ribald jokes and laughter, and part participated in them.’”
Marchers of Today
In 2013, the marchers’ reasons for tramping up the middle of Belair Road (police closed it off briefly) varied. Deborah Joy wore a sash that said “Harriet Tubman” and cited the African-American abolitionist’s work with Susan B. Anthony on behalf of women’s suffrage.
“Plus we’re coming up to the 100 year anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s death,” Joy said.
Female political leaders came (among them Montgomery County state delegate and possible 2014 candidate for governor, Heather Mizeur) or sent a staffer.
The representative for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski read a statement applauding the marchers but reminding them that women still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns and put in a plug for the “Paycheck Fairness Act.”
City Councilman Brandon Scott, the lone male politician on the dais, congratulated the suffragists for “showing our forefathers they did it the wrong way.”
As for the youngest marchers, the Girl Scouts serving as color guard said learning about Gen. Jones and Col. Craft and their army inspired them.
“It’s awesome to honor the women who did this. They had to rest, their feet were sore but they kept going,” said Cadin Walter, 11.
“It’s amazing that they came right through here,” said Carmen Pusateri, also 11. “They showed that women just had to have the right to vote.”