ST. LOUIS • The women held yellow parasols and wore white dresses with golden sashes bearing the words “Votes for Women.” They stood silently, lining 12 blocks of Locust Street.
The men passing by tipped their hats.
Several thousand suffragists in St. Louis held their “walkless, talkless” demonstration in St. Louis 100 years ago — on June 14, 1916, opening day of the Democratic National Convention at the old Coliseum at Jefferson Avenue and Locust Street. The delegates, almost all of them men, stayed in hotels downtown and walked or rode to the 10,000-seat convention hall.
One delegate, a man from Michigan, lingered long enough to mutter, “This is all very well, but I’d just like to know who is at home taking care of the babies?” So wrote Marguerite Martyn, a Post-Dispatch feature reporter and sketch artist who chronicled the moment for the next day’s newspaper.
The event on Locust, known as the Golden Lane, was St. Louis’ most noteworthy gesture in the run-up to winning the vote for women nationwide. The Democrats in the Coliseum voted to endorse the franchise for women and urged the states to adopt it. The Republican Party, gathered in Chicago the week before, had endorsed the same strategy.
Leaving the issue to state legislatures may sound today like a dodge, but neither party had even a word about women’s suffrage in their 1912 platforms.
The convention renominated President Woodrow Wilson, who then defeated Republican challenger Charles Hughes of New York. The big convention news was that three-time party nominee William Jennings Bryan, who had arrived as a news correspondent, took the podium for another rousing speech.
In 1919, the Missouri Legislature approved letting women vote in presidential elections — an act made moot by ratification Aug. 18, 1920, of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting the denial of voting rights “on account of sex.”
The Missouri History Museum and the League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis are commemorating the Golden Lane with events this summer. The first is at 7 p.m. Thursday, when Margot McMillen of Fulton, Mo., author of a book on the demonstration, is to speak in the History Museum theater. On Labor Day weekend, the league is planning a day of speeches and events at the Central Public Library downtown.
Kathleen Farrell, co-president of the league, said the organization will wait until Sept. 3 in order to encourage participation by students back on college campuses. The date also is much closer to the national election in November, she said.
“People need to remember, especially in this time when so many are disgusted in government, how hard others worked to get the vote and how prominent St. Louis was in that story,” Farrell said. “We all need to take part.”
The Golden Lane was organized by members of the St. Louis Equal Suffrage League, which formed in 1910 at the West End home of Florence Wyman Richardson, its first president. The league had sponsored a speech here in 1911 by Emmeline Pankhurst, a militant British suffragist given to violent tactics. The local league’s leaders wanted a more dignified approach and planned for the Democratic convention, which proved to be the last of five major-party conventions held in St. Louis.
Organizers called for 10,000 women to take part. “One woman in line is worth 10 petitions in the waste basket,” said a promotional leaflet. Leaders instructed participants to maintain silence, the better to make their point visually in the colors of the suffrage movement. Women lined up on both sides of Locust from 12th Street (Tucker Boulevard) to Jefferson.
The center of the demonstration was a “tableau” of women on the steps of the old city Art Museum building at 19th and Locust streets. One woman was dressed as Liberty. Thirteen more represented 12 states including Illinois, plus the Alaska territory, that granted full or partial suffrage to women.
Estimates range from 2,000 to 7,000 women participants. As convention delegates passed through their silent gauntlet, some waved and occasionally cheered. Others kept their eyes straight ahead.
McMillen, author of “The Golden Lane, How Missouri Women Gained the Vote and Changed History,” called the strategy of silence “brilliant.”
“It was a way of saying, ‘You already know our message. We don’t need to say anything more,’” she said. “It engaged the media and was a strong statement to the delegates.”
In Missouri, the suffrage movement rose from women’s aid organizations for wounded soldiers during the Civil War and from early efforts to outlaw inebriating drink. Plenty of men agreed with the Michigan delegate about a woman’s place, but others were afraid that women voters would ban beer.
“If you’re a woman and her husband spends all the money in a club you can’t enter, what is your alternative?” McMillen said. “It made many women push for the vote.”
The 18th Amendment, the “prohibition” amendment, was adopted in January 1919 — well before women had the vote nationwide. (Some states still restricted voting by race.)
In March 1919, the St. Louis Equal Suffrage League hosted the national suffrage convention, during which members formed the League of Women Voters. The local league says it is hosting the Golden Lane commemoration because, “Our foremothers enabled today’s reality where women not only vote, but use their voices at all levels of government, business and society.”