Suffragists Rally on Independence Square, 1911 and 1912

Black and white photo of Alice Paul, a young woman in a hat.
Alice Paul used tools fairly new to suffrage activists, like open-air meetings and rallies, in Philadelphia.

Library of Congress,

Suffragists held mass open-air rallies on Independence Square in 1911 and 1912, linking their cause with the meaning of democracy. Connecting to the founding ideals of the nation was nothing new for the movement. In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton used the words in the Declaration of Independence as inspiration for the women's Declaration of Sentiments. However, open-air rallies represented a fairly new tactic for the women's suffrage movement in America, and these particular rallies rooted the message of "votes for women" firmly on the nation's hallowed ground.

Open-Air Meetings - A Novel Tactic in Philadelphia

English suffragettes championed parades and open-air meetings and rallies before these strategies became commonplace in the United States. American suffragist Alice Paul participated in open-air meetings and demonstrations in England, even serving time in an English jail for her activism.

When Paul introduced open-air meetings and a rally to Philadelphia in 1911, it caused apprehension in some of her fellow activists and proved to be a novelty for Philadelphia's citizens. Suffragist Caroline Katzenstein later recalled that "Such a meeting had never before been held in Philadelphia's history" (Katzenstein, Lifting the Curtain, p. 43). Night after night during the summer open-air campaign, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and other women spoke to large crowds at different street corners in the city. The women at times faced harrassment. At City Hall Plaza, a drunken fellow interrupted Paul repeatedly with "booing and hooting" before being expelled by other men in the crowd (Philadelphia Bulletin, July 29, 1911). A group of giggling young girls proved to be a distraction that evening as well. After Paul had spoken for nearly two hours, the newspaper reported that a coatless man addressed the girls, saying, "You haven't got enough sense to see it, but its women like her that'll give you a chance, raise your wages and give you a home better than the streets" (Philadelphia Bulletin, July 29, 1911).

Publicity and the Open-Air Campaign

Publicity was a key component of the open-air campaign. When the novelty of women speaking for suffrage on Philadelphia's street corners diminished and newspaper coverage waned that summer, Paul sought publicity by sending two women out with cakes of sidewalk chalk before dawn. They chalked "Votes for Women" on sidewalks all across town, stirring up much press interest in the mysterious defacement of the city sidewalks (Katzenstein, Lifting the Curtain, p. 49)

Women's Suffrage Rally on Independence Square, 1911

Alice Paul's open-air campaign culminated in a rally on Independence Square on Saturday, September 30, 1911. Paul obtained a permit for the event from Director of Public Safety Henry Clay after other city officials repeatedly rebuffed her (Philadelphia Public Ledger, September 30, 1911). It was election day in Philadelphia, so as the Philadelphia Public Ledger newspaper reported, while the men would be "slating their candidates for munipal offices at the polls, the women will gather in an immense mass meeting this afternoon in Independence Square..."

From five rickety platforms, a total of 18 speakers (15 women and 3 men) advocated for women's suffrage. Among the speakers were Alice Paul, Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, and Inez Milholland. Yellow pennants, sashes, and other symbols of the movement adorned Independence Square (Philadelphia Public Ledger, September 30, 1911). Dr. Shaw made the point that "The candidates for office cry aloud that the people should rule...But we are told that the men are the people. Are not women people?" (Philadelphia Public Ledger, October 1, 1911, page 8). Shaw and Milholland invited arguments and questions, responding to a number of remarks by anti-suffragists. Meanwhile, suffragists sold literature and took up a collection for the movement at the event. Much like at other mainstream women's suffrage events, women of color did not seem to play a prominent role in this rally.

Nor were women of color invited to be key participants just over a year later, when suffragists returned to Independence Square for a noontime rally during the 44th annual convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), meeting in Philadelphia.

1912 Rally for Women's Suffrage on Independence Square

On Thursday, November 21, 1912, twenty cars decorated with "Votes for Women" banners transported some of the participants to Independence Square where five platforms had been erected for the 36 speakers (The Times-Tribune, November 21, 1912, page 4). NAWSA national corresponding secretary Mary Ware Dennett read the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments to an enthusiastic crowd (The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 22, 1912, page 1). Dr. Anna Howard Shaw declared that the Declaration of Independence was "not framed for Gentile or Jew, male or female, and that its framers had no idea of depriving women of their liberties and the right of suffrage" (The Sentinel, November 22, 1912, page 1).

The success of these open-air meetings and rallies - in terms of garnering publicity and gaining a wider audience - proved valuable to Alice Paul and other suffragists. Paul went on to organize parades, demonstrations, and even hunger strikes to help women gain the right to vote. After the adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920 extended voting rights to women, Paul realized that the work of women's equality was not done. She later drafted the Equal Rights Amendment.


"Alice Paul Wins Open Air Debate," Philadelphia Bulletin, July 29, 1911

"Expect Throng At Suffrage Meeting," Philadelphia Public Ledger, September 30, 1911

"Women Urge Their Claims To Vote," Philadelphia Public Ledger, October 1, 1911, page 8

"Suffragists Flock To Philadelphia," The Times-Tribune (Scranton, PA), November 21, 1912, page 4

"Suffragetts [sic] Meet In Phila," The Sentinel (Carlisle, PA), November 22, 1912, page 1

"Suffrage Flags Fill The City As Convention Opens," The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 22, 1912, page 1

Katzenstein, Caroline. Lifting the Curtain: The State and National Woman Suffrage Campaigns in Pennsylvania as I Saw Them. Philadelphia: Dorrance & Company, 1955.

Independence National Historical Park

Last updated: February 24, 2021