Inez Milholland: Socialite, Suffragette, Icon

There are several reasons why this month’s post will focus on the fascinating Inez Milholland. Not only did her efforts as part of the women’s suffrage movement inspire many, she also became a lawyer – a highly unlikely profession for a female — and was celebrated for her efforts during her lifetime as well as considered a martyr after her death! The interesting tie-in for fashion is in her stylish clothing and the change in attitude in Vogue‘s pages while covering the suffragette movement and Milholland.

Inez Milholland
Looking every bit the Edwardian lady here ca. 1911, in an S-curve silhouette gown. Davis & Eickemeyer; Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr. (August 7, 1862 – April 25, 1932) [Public domain]

Inez Milholland was born into a wealthy family but took an unlikely interest in the working class and social inequalities at a young age. Her father was a supporter of equal rights as well as an activist and her mother undertook charitable endeavors. This probably initially sparked her involvement in social issues. The family lived in London for six years while Milholland was a girl, and during that time they often entertained political “underdog” leaders.[1]

While a student at Vassar College, Milholland encountered the militant, English suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst, and this would further spur her interest in women’s rights. By the time she graduated Vassar in 1909, she was already practiced at giving speeches about the suffragette cause and was creating a name for herself in the press. She was an athlete at Vassar, playing field hockey and throwing shot put, and starred in many theater productions. I think the insight gained as a performer helped her to hone her public speaking skills and more effectively capture an audience.

Inez Vassar Speech
Miholland giving a speech at her graduation from Vassar in May 1909, already practiced in front of a crowd. Photograph, Vassar College Library, Linda J. Lumsden, Inez: The Life and Times of Inez Milholland. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004, 42.

At first, in the early 1910s, Milholland is shown parading in the latest fashions, like below at the Vanderbilt Cup races. The races were always a magnet for photographers looking to capture the latest styles, and women dressed to the occasion. Her enigmatic presence would continue to grace the pages of fashion magazines as the 19-teens progressed, but intermixed with images of Milholland that mentioned the connection to her causes and work.

Vanderbilt Cup Races
Inez Milholland on the far right, the caption read “Miss Inez Milholland was a guest of Mrs. Oliver H. P. Belmont for several weeks.” Photograph, “The Vanderbilt Cup Races,” Vogue, vol. 36, issue 9, November 1, 1910, 23 The Vogue Archive.

Milholland was becoming something of a celebrity, originally photographed as another lady of high society, but soon a stylish woman with a powerful message too. Linda Lumsden, a biographer of Milholland and associate professor of journalism and women’s studies at Western Kentucky University, mentions several important factors in her book, Inez: The Life and Times of Inez Milholland, that led to Milholland’s celebrity as the embodiment of the New Woman. Unlike her timid predecessor, the New Woman represented an athletic, educated, career-driven female. Milholland was a natural beauty, well-educated, and had an athletic figure that closely resembled the popular Gibson Girl image – the cartoon version of the New Woman. Of course, this was a one-note representation of women at that time, and Milholland’s image glorified a white, upper-class representation of a feminist. However, regardless of a singular representation, Lumsden notes that “newspapers achieved their peak influence in the 1910s,”and undeniably Milholland’s image in them was influential among national readers.[2]

One of the many Gibson Girl images created by Charles Dana Gibson. Art Lesson, print, 1901 [Public Domain].
Before the 1910s, however, Vogue and many American magazines were still not supportive of the suffragettes. An article from 1908 in Vogue titled, “Indiscreet Tactics Greatly Damage a Certain Cause” decried the efforts of more militant suffragettes. An article of similar sentiment in 1909 in Vogue, “A Dangerous Game,” dedicated a full-page article to denouncing the suffrage movement. Some excerpts included:

The very war cries of the ‘votes for women’ party, and the rash promisings its adherents indulge in, show how holly unfitted they are, in their present condition of little knowledge, to undertake so serious a matter as making their influence felt in the governing of this country […]


Do the women who are playing with the ‘votes for women’ propaganda relish developing a brood of wage earning women mal-contents?[3]

Yet, in 1909, I noticed there was already some push back to the anti-suffrage feeling from the readers, which would likely encourage a different agenda by the publication. A letter from a subscriber with the heading, “Votes for Women,” stated:

I was much interested by an editorial on women’s suffrage which appeared in Vogue of 24 December. I do not agree with the writer, and should like very much to present the case from the point of view of an advocate of votes for women.[4]

The viewpoint of many Vogue readers was changing in their attitudes towards gaining women the right to vote, and subsequent articles in favor of this view soon followed.

In 1910, Vogue appeared to feature more opinions from both sides of the suffragette issue, mentioning Miss Inez Milholland. Her photo was featured, Milholland stylishly clad, and the image seems a powerful reinforcement of the strong support many felt for the movement and a beautiful representation of a socialite suffragette — something Vogue likely thought their readers would be more apt to entertain.  She wears a fashionably large hat, what appears to be a necktie under a wide collared jacket (a common feature of the New Woman’s look), and a delicate ruffle peaks out at the sleeves.

Votes for women
The caption here read “Miss Inez Milholland, who figured in the Shirtwaist Strike, is now active in London Suffrage circle.” Trans-Atlantic Co., photograph, “The March of the Suffragists,” Vogue, vol. 36, issue 5,  September 1, 1910, 56, The Vogue Archive.

By 1912, Vogue seemed to have largely changed its tune towards the female vote (at least in my findings) and in the recurring column “As Seen By Him,” a different perspective on the suffragette is given. This 1912 article read:

We should have such hostesses [involved in politics] in this country. So far, outside of Washington, we have not seen many women take up politics and government, with the exception of those who are advocates of Women Suffrage. […] Miss Inez Milholland […] and a number of others […]

and continued:

Now, however, the fashion has been set, and there is no reason why Washington should not see political salons […].[5]

By this time, post-1912, I found multiple articles in Vogue that were in favor of the movement. As a magazine that was created for high society, perhaps it was too hard to ignore the change in attitude towards women’s rights, and especially with many a well-dressed socialite leading the way, Milholland included.

Sufragette Parade
Part of a Vogue featuring the most recent suffrage parade. Milholland shown on a horse that she rode to lead the parade. Marie Harrison, ed., “Photographs of the Suffrage Parade,” Vogue, vol. 39, issue 11, June 1, 1912, 24, The Vogue Archive.

Soon the suffragette parades were covered by Vogue’s journalists and photographers. The high society members who attended were noted, like Milholland riding a horse above. Reporters praised her for her beauty, but after answering questions between the connection of “beauty and the ballot,” she had had enough and said “she wished the NAWSA [National American Women Suffrage Association] would emphasize her mind instead of her looks.”[6] Her beauty had given her an unfair advantage as a magnet for press coverage, but ironically this became a point of frustration for Milholland who wished to be recognized for her intellectual achievements instead.

Inez before PArade.jpg
May as well look stylish while handing out The Women’s Journal to male onlookers before the  May 6, 1911 suffrage parade. Milholland would lead the parade down 5th Avenue in NYC after handing these out. Robert P. J. Cooney, Jr., ed., Remembering Inez: The Last Campaign of Inez Milholland, Suffrage Matyr, Half Moon Bay, CA: American Graphic Press, 2015, 56.

Milholland could be found was not just a participant but a focal point or marshal in multiple parades. She could often be found riding a horse. Perhaps one of her most memorable parade moments is pictured below as the head of the parade in 1913. A unique blend of feminism and femininity, she wears a “‘star of hope, armed with the cross of mercy, circled with the blue mantle of freedom, breasted with the torch of knowledge, and carrying the trumpet which is to herald the dawn of a new day […].’”[7] She wanted this medieval-inspired look of the white knight, to represent a new future. She also tended to stand out from the crowd and wore all white whereas the other heralds along the route wore yellow.

Inez on a white horse as part of the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C.  Photograph, George Grantham Bain Collection, Libary of Congress [Public domain]
Milholland later earned her Law degree at New York University (she was denied admission at Harvard and Columbia due to her gender) and this too was photographed and shown favorably in magazine pages. The example below shows her portrait in Vogue. While highlighting her beauty with the favorable image, the caption read:

Mrs. Boissevain, formerly Miss Inez Milholland, has been admitted to the bar in the State of New York and is a well-known leader of the movement for the enfranchisement of American women.[8]

Inez Lawyer
Arnold Genthe, photograph. Vogue, vol. 44, issue 7, October 1, 1914, 34, The Vogue Archive. 

It was still highly unusual and largely discouraged for women to practice law at this time, but Milholland was determined to learn for the sake of the women’s movement as well as furthering other social issues like those of the shirtwaist strikers for labor rights. Milholland married the wealthy Dutch coffee importer, Eugen Boissevain in 1913, but she continued practicing law and she wished to be self-supporting.

Town and Country
This magazine photograph was captioned “Calling on a Famous Woman Lawyer. ‘Our Mutual Girl,’ Miss Norma Phillips in the office of Mrs. Eugene [sic] Boissevain.” Town & Country, ca. 1914.
As part of her campaign for gender equality, Milholland embarked on an ambitious speaking tour of the Western United States in 1916. She became so exhausted by the end of the tour that she collapsed as she was speaking in California and died shortly after at the age of 30. She had recently been diagnosed as having aplastic anemia and was warned about her fragile state. This perhaps further solidified her status as a martyr, and many mourned her loss. The last phrase Milholland spoke before her collapse was:

President Wilson, how long must this go on?  [9]

This was often repurposed on banners and in speeches by her comrades and became a popular slogan that also honored her memory [see prior post Suffragette Dressed for an Agenda].

Inez Boissevain
The National Women’s Party created this poster of Milholland  in 1924 in the standard suffragette colors of gold, purple, and white. This was based on her role in the 1913 Washington, D.C. parade and solidified her status as an iconic suffrage martyr. Robert P. J. Cooney, Jr., ed., Remembering Inez: The Last Campaign of Inez Milholland, Suffrage Matyr, Half Moon Bay, CA: American Graphic Press, 2015, 61. 

Inez Milholland is not a name many of us are familiar with today, but her image and impassioned words inspired many suffragettes to come, until women won the right to vote in 1920. Her likeness, while contradictory as a socialite champion of the working class, and a driven-career woman with an appreciation for the finer things, became iconic for many of her fellow suffragettes. She embodied the Edwardian ideals of the New Woman, whether she liked or intended to. Her fashionable, beautiful image while at times a source of frustration for her, was also an powerful asset in creating an iconic martyr and an image that society pages could use to propel the message of independence and suffrage to their readers. Thanks to Inez Miholland and her fellow suffragettes, the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920, and the long, difficult battle for suffrage was won.


-Danielle Morrin


Want to read more on the life of Inez Milholland? I would strongly recommend these two books:

Cooney, Robert P. J. Jr., ed. Remembering Inez: The Last Campaign of Inez Milholland, Suffrage Martyr. Half Moon Bay, CA: American Graphic Press, 2015.


Lumsden, Linda J. Inez: The Life and Times of Inez Milholland. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004.


If you liked this post, you may also want to check out these Femme Fashion Forward posts: Suffragette Dressed for an Agenda  and Accessories of Suffrage: Political Brooches and Unifying Colors


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[1] Linda J. Lumsden, Inez: The Life and Times of Inez Milholland. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004, 20.

[2] Linda J. Lumsden, Inez: The Life and Times of Inez Milholland. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004, 40.

[3] Marie Harrison, ed., “A Dangerous Game,” Vogue, vol. 34, issue 4, July 22, 1909, 89, The Vogue Archive.

[4] Letter from a Subscriber, “Votes for Women,” Vogue, vol. 33, issue 8, February 25, 1909, 348, The Vogue Archive.

[5] Marie Harrison, ed., “As Seen By Him,” Vogue, vol. 40, issue 7, October 1, 1912, 136, The Vogue Archive.

[6] Linda J. Lumsden, Inez: The Life and Times of Inez Milholland. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004, 83-84.

[7] Linda J. Lumsden, Inez: The Life and Times of Inez Milholland. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004, 84.

[8] Edna Woolman Chase, ed., Vogue, vol. 44, issue 7, October 1, 1914, 34, The Vogue Archive.

[9] Linda J. Lumsden, Inez: The Life and Times of Inez Milholland. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004, 163.

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