Photo illustration by alice kresse; Lavinia Engle Photo from the Maryland State Archives, parade photo from the Harris and Ewing collection at the Library of Congress

On March 3, 1913, one day before the first inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson, 20-year-old Lavinia Margaret Engle of Forest Glen joined more than 8,000 demonstrators on Capitol Hill as they prepared to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House to demand that women be given the vote.  

Many of the marchers never reached their destination.

As the protesters gathered on Capitol Hill, tens of thousands of spectators, mostly men in town for the inauguration, lined the avenue. The men heckled and jeered the demonstrators as they marched, then flooded into the street and blocked their path. Women were grabbed, jostled and pushed to the pavement. Policemen seemed indifferent to the attacks taking place around them, The Washington Post reported, their inaction interpreted as sympathetic to the mob.

More than 100 women were hospitalized following the melee. Congressional hearings ensued. The D.C. superintendent of police was fired. The incident, reported in the national news, only amplified the call for women’s voting rights.

Engle escaped the fray unscathed. She had marched as a member of the Maryland delegation in what was intended to be a grand parade—organized by the National American Woman Suffrage Association—that would include nine bands, four mounted brigades, 20 floats and an allegorical performance about the plight of women.

Engle’s childhood prepared her for a role in the suffrage movement. She had grown up in Forest Glen, a quiet suburban community just north of Silver Spring, the daughter of Quaker parents. Her mother, Lavinia Hauke Engle, was an active suffragette who once joined Susan B. Anthony in testifying before Congress. Her father, James Engle, was a Treasury Department official.

After graduating from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1912, the younger Lavinia joined the suffrage association as an organizer and field secretary, traveling throughout the country to incite women to action. She once rode a mule up a dry creek bed in West Virginia to get the support of a legislator. Her weapons, she said, were “justice, logic and persuasion.” Her recipe for a good speech: “Stand up, speak up and shut up.”

Engle was a firm believer in womanpower, and she put that belief into action. With the entry of the U.S. into World   War I in 1917, she helped organize a suffrage field hospital staffed entirely by women to nurse wounded soldiers. Engle later recalled to an interviewer that the most difficult part of the project was finding a woman plumber.

Finally, after years of struggle, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution went into effect in 1920, giving women the right to vote. The old suffrage association was disbanded and in its place, leaders formed the League of Women Voters. For the next 16 years, Engle served as executive secretary of the Maryland league, investigating a variety of social problems, from child labor to families in poverty, and lobbying for health services for women and children.

Engle found a political platform in 1930, when she was elected the first woman to represent Montgomery County in the Maryland House of Delegates. Her political acumen caught the eye of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who appointed her head of the speakers’ bureau for his first presidential campaign in 1932. When the Social Security Act was signed into law in 1936, Roosevelt asked her to head up field operations for the new agency. She stayed with Social Security until her retirement in 1964.   

During her lifetime, Engle received accolades and awards for her work on women’s issues. No matter her age or the odds, she never gave up the fight. 

Author and historian Mark Walston was raised in Bethesda and lives in Olney.