JOAN OF ARC’S silver suit shone in the late afternoon sun, but you couldn’t hear her milk-white horse’s hooves click against the pavement unless you were standing right next to her. Instead, the whistles of traffic officers blew, marching bands played, and cheers rose from the crowd, packed thick along the sidewalk.
The women’s suffrage march in New York had taken place two weeks ago, on May 5, 1912, while Abdu’l-Baha was in Chicago. At five o’clock sharp, an army of women and men began to march from Washington Square three miles up Fifth Avenue to Carnegie Hall at 57th Street. There were 10,000 of them, including 618 men. It was a parade “the like of which New York never knew before,” said the New York Times. Nearly 400,000 people emptied themselves out of the surrounding buildings to look on.
This afternoon, May 20, 1912, Abdu’l-Baha stood beneath the huge McKinley Memorial Organ in front of a woman’s suffrage meeting at Rev. Frederick Lynch’s Metropolitan Temple in New York, at Seventh Avenue and 14th Street. “It has been objected by some,” he told the audience, “that woman is not equally capable with man and that she is by creation deficient. This is pure imagination. The difference in capability between man and woman is due entirely to opportunity and education.”
“In some countries,” he said, “man went so far as to believe and teach that woman belonged to a sphere lower than human. . . .God is proving to the satisfaction of humanity that all this is ignorance and error. . . .”
Women on horseback trotted around the east side of the Washington Arch to begin the march. Marie Stewart was the one dressed as Joan of Arc. Behind her 100 women carried painted green soapboxes. Instead of handing out literature to the spectators and risking a mess of discarded paper in their wake, they were going to place themselves strategically among the crowd, and to speak in support of the vote on their soapboxes.
Mrs. Harriot Stanton Blatch, of Seneca Falls, NY, was the chief organizer of the march. Her mother, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had written the Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention in 1848, which launched the suffrage movement. Mrs. Blatch’s “Final Word to Marchers” was printed the day before: “March with head erect,” she told the women. “Eyes to the front. Remember, you march for the mightiest reform the world has ever seen.”
“In past ages,” Abdu’l-Baha told his audience, “noted women have arisen in the affairs of nations and surpassed men in their accomplishments. Among them was Zenobia, Queen of the East, whose capital was Palmyra. . . . After her husband’s death she assumed the royal diadem in his stead. . . . Afterward she conquered Syria, subdued Egypt and founded a most wonderful kingdom with political sagacity and thoroughness.”
As the first of the marchers left the square, more women joined their ranks along the way. Miss Albert Hill’s contingent entered at the north end of Washington Square. She had just come from Albany where she has been trying to convince unwilling state senators to support the women’s vote. Professional women — doctors, lawyers, writers, musicians, artists, librarians, lecturers, and social workers — merged with the army at East 9th Street. They met 2,000 industrial workers coming from the other direction along 9th — milliners, dressmakers, shirtwaist makers, laundresses, and domestic workers. Businesswomen joined one block up: managers, buyers, tea room proprietors, secretaries, bookkeepers, stenographers, and telephone operators. Then the suffrage pioneers turned left into the marching masses at the corner where the Church of the Ascension stood at Fifth Avenue and 10th Street. The Reverend Antoinette Brown Blackwell walked with them, America’s first female ordained minister. Today was her eighty-seventh birthday; she was the oldest woman in the march. Little Harriet Blaten de Forrest was the youngest: she was just two years old, pushed in a stroller by her mother.
“The Roman Empire sent a great army against her,” Abdu’l-Baha continued. “When this army replete with martial splendor reached Syria, Zenobia herself appeared upon the field leading her forces. On the day of battle she arrayed herself in regal garments, placed a crown upon her head and rode forth, sword in hand, to meet the invading legions.”
Frederick S. Greene, leader of the men’s division of the parade, said that last year, in 1911, they had marched “amid a storm of hissing and missiles.” His group “had a wet towel thrown at us from one of the windows opposite the Waldorf.” But this year things were different. Even Inspector McClusky, head of the NYPD detective’s bureau, tightened his belt at 23rd Street: “It’s about time to give them the vote,” he said. “I wish to God they would. I’d be with ‘em.”
Zenobia destroyed the Roman army. Finally, the Emperor Aurelian marched into Syria himself with 200,000 men. He besieged Palmyra for two years, eventually cutting off the city’s water supply. Zenobia, faced with her city’s starvation, was forced to surrender.
Aurelian, Abdu’l-Baha said, marched Zenobia into Rome with a golden chain around her neck. A procession of elephants, lions, tigers, birds, and monkeys preceded her, and on her head she wore a crown. “Verily, I glory in being a woman and in having withstood the Roman Empire,” she told the crowd with “queenly dignity.” “And this chain about my neck is a sign not of humiliation but of glorification.”
“This is a symbol of my power,” she said, “not of my defeat.”
The sun began to set around 7:30 p.m. on May 5. The women brought out torches, turning the street into a river of fire. When they finally convened at Carnegie Hall, regiment by regiment, their army formed an audience.
Joan of Arc dismounted her horse and blended in with the crowd.
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This article was originally published on May 20, 2012 at 239Days.com, a social media documentary following Abdu’l-Baha’s 1912 journey through North America. © Caitlin Shayda Jones, 2012. This article may not be republished without prior written permission. Contact info@239Days.com.