Petition Supports NY Suffragist For Presidential Citizens Medal

Dec 20, 2016

Support continues to grow for President Obama to award a suffragist with ties to the Hudson Valley a Presidential Citizens Medal. More than 1,000 groups and individuals have signed the campaign’s petition for the New York native and Vassar College graduate to be the recipient.

Candidates are nominated for the Presidential Citizens Medal, which recognizes Americans who have “performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens.” It is the second-highest civilian award in the U.S. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the first. With 2016 marking the centennial of suffragist Inez Milholland’s death, supporters such as Marguerite Kearns say the timing is right in a women’s history story that continues.

“It’s really another milestone in a very long process. It started in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, and it’s continuing to the present day,” Kearns says. “And it moves into the future. It’s a long-term story.”

The petition supporting the nomination of Milholland has been submitted to the White House for consideration. Kearns credits filmmaker Martha Wheelock with helping to circulate Milholland’s story. Earlier in 2016, Wheelock produced and distributed “Forward into Light,” a documentary about Milholland.

(cut from the documentary)

2017 denotes the centennial of women securing the right to vote in New York; and 2020, the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. 

Kearns is co-chair of the non-profit National Women’s History Project Inez Milholland centennial campaign. She says Milholland, who was born in Brooklyn in 1886, was a Vassar College graduate, some 60 years before the Poughkeepsie-based college become co-ed.

“The first rumblings for Inez Milholland happened when she was a student in the Hudson Valley, shortly before her graduation from Vassar in 1909,” says Kearns. “And she was popular, she was an athlete, she was opinionated, and she got into trouble because the president of Vassar didn’t want women talking about voting rights  and so that was her first launching into public arena.”

Milholland went on to New York University School of Law and practiced law in the city while advocating for women’s voting rights. Kearns’ grandmother knew Milholland.

“My grandmother, Edna Kearns, knew Inez Milholland and she knew, of course, a lot of different, individual activists in New York state. And New York is the cradle of the women’s rights movement in the United States. It wasn’t a large group of people, but they worked hard.  My grandmother worked from, I’d say, 1910-1920, and she was associated with all the different state, regional and national organizations. At the very end, she picketed the White House with Alice Paul in the National Woman’s Party. And the Sewell-Belmont house, which is now renamed the Belmont-Paul National Monument, in Washington, D.C., was the headquarters. And so in 2017, in January, the picketing of the White House started 100 years ago,” Kearns says. “So it’s really a very rich legacy that we have. And Inez Milholland is an important part of it. And by recognizing Inez, we’re recognizing a broad segment of American women and men. My grandfather marched in the suffrage parades in New York City and Washington, D.C. along with my grandmother.”

And, Kearns points out, there is a Christmas Day legacy here. On Christmas in 1916, more than 1,000 women and men gathered in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol for a memorial service for Milholland. It was the first time a woman was honored there. After refusing to cancel a speaking tour for the 19th Amendment in 1916, Milholland collapsed. Here’s more from Wheelock’s documentary.

(more sound from the documentary)

Milholland, a founding member of the National Woman’s Party, was buried near the family home in Lewis, in the Adironadacks.