Brass Belles: How The Missouri Ladies Military Band Helped Women Get The Right To Vote
On January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, millions of people around the world gathered to promote women’s rights in one of the largest international displays of solidarity for a sisterhood still battling for equality and equity.
On March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, 5,000 people, most of them women, gathered in Washington, D.C., for the Woman Suffrage Procession. It was the first march on Washington to promote women’s suffrage and, at that time, the largest gathering of its kind in the United States.
The protestors marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, which was decked out in stars-and-stripes bunting in preparation for the next day’s festivities. An estimated 500,000 onlookers, most of them men, hemmed in the marchers, obstructing their path, spitting, taunting and harassing. Policemen did little to alleviate the situation. Depending on reports, between 100 and 300 people were injured in the mob.
In the chaos, a gritty group of rural Missouri women was thrust to the forefront and ended up leading the parade.
They were the women of the Missouri Ladies Military Band, led by Maryville native Alma Nash.
The Missouri Ladies Military Band's contribution warrants a celebration, according to the Mid America Freedom Band, whose Votes for Women! concert this Sunday is part of the band’s “Frontier and Pioneer”-themed programs this season.
“The 1913 women’s processional on Washington was a pivotal moment in the women’s suffrage movement in the United States,” says the band’s artistic director and conductor, Lee Hartman.
The concert reconstructs the event with music from the suffrage movement, featuring works by Nash, and weaves the words of Nash and her fellow bandmates into a story of the day’s larger political action.
“This is a fascinating thing to have these local connections to something that changed the world,” says Hartman.
Nash founded the Maryville School of Banjo, Mandolin & Guitar. She put together an all-ladies community band and, when she received an acceptance letter to participate in the procession, turned it into a marching band. That was in January 1913.
With its 23 members clad in blue serge uniforms, the ensemble was one of nine bands that day, but it was the only all-female band. It was possibly the first all-female band in the country.
Historians Heather Soat and Meghaan Binkley created exhibits about Nash and the band for Maryville’s Nodaway County Historical Society Museum, with photographs and artifacts, including a uniform and an instrument. They contacted Mid America Freedom Band to assist with first-person accounts, historical context, and writings from the time.
“Here we are, this community band in Kansas City, and people are reaching out to make this event even better, which is wonderful,” he says.
Public response has been enormous. The scheduled performance sold out, and for the first time in its history the band added an encore performance. That one sold out too.
“The concert started getting shared by politicians on both sides of the state line, across political parties, by political action groups, by historical societies,” says Hartman. “This is resonating with people.”
The performance examines other local connections. “The Suffrage Song Book” was published in Topeka, Kansas, in 1909. As was typical of the time, popular and traditional tunes like “Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “Dixie Land” were treated with new lyrics. (The songbook is viewable online, digitized by the Kansas Historical Society.)
Joining the band for these anthems is Heartsong, the chamber ensemble of the Kansas City Women’s Chorus.
The concert also includes “Suffragette March” by J. Siebert Taylor and an arrangement of “The Suffragette Waltz” by James Scott, a ragtime composer from Missouri. And for a break from the bombast, they include works from the movie “Mary Poppins,” including the rollicking “Sister Suffragette.”
And there’s a salute to the British suffrage movement, with Dame Ethel Smyth’s “The March of the Women.” Smyth was not only a well-regarded composer but also an outspoken proponent of women’s rights. (Women in the United Kingdom celebrated 100 years of voting rights on February 6 of this year.)
“It’s totally possible we could do a weeklong performance of all these works and not repeat anything,” Hartman says, noting that the program doesn’t address the counter argument of anti-suffrage songs from that time period.
And, he says, the suffragette movement itself was exclusionary: Some of its members wanted only white women to get the vote. He hears echoes of that now in debates about rights for transgender people and reproductive freedom.
“As an LGBT ensemble, we felt that we needed to capture that element as well,” he says, noting that Smyth was a lesbian and Scott was black.
“It was being discussed then, it’s being discussed now and it’s an important discussion to have. I always come down on the side of including more people,” he says.
After the Missouri Ladies Military Band blasted its way to the front of the procession, it would take another seven years before the 19th Amendment was signed into law.
When news reached Vera Maye Shipps, one of the band’s trombonists, she was in a general store. Later, she wrote: “I got up on the counter and danced.”