Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Portia Willis (Berg), 1886-1970

By Anna Assogba, Research Librarian, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

New York State Organizer; Grand Marshal, Woman's Peace Parade

Portia Willis was born in New York City on June 30, 1886, to Colonel Benjamin A. and Lillie Evelynn (Macaulay) Willis. Her father had served in Congress from 1875 to 1879. She had an older sister, Kate, and a brother, Ben. She later described being aware, at an early age, "that the politicians came around to ask the men to vote, but they didn't ask my mother." She attended Miss Annie Brown's School for Girls, graduating in 1898. She also attended Columbia University.

Portia became active in the suffrage movement in 1910. She recalled entering the suffrage headquarters in New York and telling Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, "I've been talking about suffrage, now I want to do something about it." The Woman's Journal described her as a new suffrage worker "of attractive personality, rare gifts, and ... heartily devoted to the suffrage cause." She certainly caught the attention of many and even served as the partial inspiration for Edith Bailey's poem, "Portia Politics," which was published serially in The Woman Voter in 1911 and 1912. She participated in one of the first suffrage parades down New York City's Fifth Avenue on May 21, 1910, organized by Harriet Stanton Blatch. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate, and most bystanders paid them little attention. However, this was just the first of many times that Portia would participate in a parade related to suffrage. On May 3, 1913, she served as the chief marshal of another parade up Fifth Avenue, with a banner that said "New York State, Victory, 1915," referring to the New York suffragists' campaign to win the vote in 1915. That same year, on December 8, she also took part in a suffragists' march on the White House, in response to President Woodrow Wilson not speaking about woman's suffrage to Congress. On August 29th, 1914, she served as the Grand Marshal in the Women's Peace Parade in New York City, leading a group of 1,500 women. She was clad in a "plumed hat, sash, and lace-edged blouse" with a black armband and "carried a bouquet of purple and white asters tied with black." The black armband and ribbon symbolized the mournful aspect of the event, lamenting the dead of the current World War. Unlike most parades, which are noisy affairs, with music and cheering crowds, at this one, silence reigned over the marching women. In 1916, during the suffrage parade that coincided with the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Portia had the unusual responsibility of driving two elephants, Jennie and Lena, as they carried the literal manifestation of the figurative "suffrage plank" that the suffragists hoped the Republicans would adopt at their convention. Portia later downplayed her role in the suffrage movement, saying "I know that the parades were a lot of fluff to make them sit up and take notice.... We were on the crest and it was a glamorous thing by the time I joined; but the pioneers had sacrificed a great deal."

The use of the elephants in the suffrage parade was just one of many examples of new methods that suffragists were using to advertise their movement. At a "suffragist aviation meet" in Garden City, Long Island, in September 1913, she and Mrs. Marian Simms had planned to make flights above the gathered crowds, distributing suffragist literature and yellow flowers, symbolic of the suffragist movement. Difficult weather prevented their flights, unfortunately, though two other suffragists, Ruth Law and Margaret Pierson, flew briefly. Rather than flying, Portia took on the role of cake "auctioneer" at the cake sale on the second afternoon of the event. The New York Times recorded her comments on one of the bids:

Mrs Robinson and Sydney Backwith [sic], an aviator, bid for the next, a caramel confection. As a reward for his courage, Miss Willis made the aviator conspicuous by inquiring through her huge megaphone if he were a member of the men's league. Beckwith confessed that he was not. In the same stentorian tone Miss Willis announced to the crowd: "He says he is not a member of the men's league, but after he's eaten the cake he will be."

Many events hosted by the suffragists were necessarily aimed at men, since they were the ones who held the power to vote for change. On June 22, 1914, Portia helped out at a suffrage flower market in Lower Manhattan, selling "daisies, bluebells, columbines, syringas, lavender and sweet Williams, and all the flowers of the month." In addition, politicians who attended were promised free boutonnieres. Portia also participated in a suffragist effort to win men's votes by visiting many New York City barber shops in September 1915. The suffragists dressed in colors similar to those on a barber's pole. Portia herself "wore a rose colored linen dress and a big black hat with trailing red and white ribbons, which added a barberian touch." She encouraged the barbers to make a difference to the suffrage vote, saying, "We want you to help us ... because when you hold a razor to a man's throat and then ask him if he will vote for suffrage you can probably get him to say 'Yes!'" As part of the campaign for woman's suffrage in 1915, Portia and 23 other suffragists visited "25,000 motorman, conductors, and other street railway men" in their car barns, asking for their vote. Portia as usual had an amusing comment to make, "pleas[ing] the Fifth Avenue bus men when she told them at their barn that they were the 'car men de luxe,' for it took a double fare to ride with them." Portia's group of New York City suffragists also targeted other male-dominated occupations, visiting Wall Street brokers in September 1915 and banks and trust companies in October 1915.

Portia apparently drew great crowds when she spoke, perhaps partly because of her beauty, though certainly also for her skill. Portia's speaking ability and her capacity to both amuse and speak seriously served her well over the course of her suffrage career. When she became the New York state organizer in 1911, she not only helped coordinate many meetings and public events, but she also became a frequent speaker at events as well. Later on, she would be described as "one of the most graceful and convincing speakers on the roster of The Cause." In January 1911, she accompanied a delegation to the state house in Albany to present a bill for the women's vote. She remembered the event later, including meeting then-Senator Franklin D. Roosevelt, saying that "we just approached him because he was the type we understood and could talk to and he was the leader of the insurgents." Unfortunately, Roosevelt disappointed the suffragists by not introducing the suffrage bill. She also spoke at one of the first events of the 1911 summer campaign, in Rochester, New York and was greeted by "a hearty reception." Also in Rochester, she spoke to female factory workers, who may have been curious about what women's voting power could do for their rights and safety, weighing on their minds since the news of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire earlier that year. She, along with Mrs. Jessie Hardy Stubbs, "took entire charge of the Lowville and Carthage meetings." She also served as the vice-president of the Woman Suffrage Study Club in New York City.

In May 1913, she spoke at a cake sale event put on by one of the suffrage party headquarters in Manhattan. That same month, she spoke as part of an impromptu event in front of an anti-suffrage headquarters, declaring that the anti-suffragists could not "take this color from us"... referring to her [red] hat. She also furthered her suffrage education during the fall by attending the School for Suffrage Workers in New York City, organized by Carrie Chapman Catt. At the end of the year, she attended the National-American Woman Suffrage Association convention held in Washington, D.C.

In April 1914, she joined in barefoot "dances of 'Joy' and 'Hope'" as part of a suffrage pageant in New York City. On June 8, 1914, she spoke as part of a series of outdoor suffrage meetings, and on June 29, she spoke at a suffrage sandwich-selling event in Lower Manhattan. While Portia most often participated in suffrage events in and around New York City, she also traveled to other locations. In past years, she had toured upstate New York for the suffrage cause. On July 9, 1914, in Brockton, Massachusetts, while ostensibly on vacation, she made room in her schedule for a suffrage speech. In a "commanding voice," she called on the people of Massachusetts to make the woman's vote a reality. On July 26, 1914, she spoke at a rally on the Boston Common. She reminded her audience that women in Finland, Norway, and Australia could all vote. She also rebutted many common arguments against woman's suffrage. The Boston Daily Globe noticed that Portia was "not only a good-looking young woman but an animated speaker, and she knows the subject from all angles." Just a few days later, she was part of a delegation that attended a session in the House of Representatives to hear the remarks of Wyoming Congressman Frank Mondell about a resolution to allow for woman suffrage.

As part of the long campaign in 1915, she spoke at one of the New York City Interborough Council Fire Nights, on August 5th. She spoke at the opening of a center for Black women suffragists in Manhattan, on September 1, 1915. She was also part of a relay of continuous speakers during a last-minute effort at the end of October 1915, when the New York women suffragists held 24-hour meetings, capturing an audience of almost 20,000 people, mostly men. Unfortunately, the November 2nd vote held a disappointing result for the suffragists. At the state convention that December, the suffragists gathered to debate and ultimately ratify a new constitution for their more unified organization, which adopted the title "New York Woman Suffrage Party." There were some strong objections to the use of the word "party" in the name of the organization, but the other logical choice, "association" had already been taken by the anti-suffragists. While some felt "party" was too political, Portia defended the word for just this reason:

"I think," she said, "that we ought to develop more political-mindedness. We're a party now, and we ought to fight aggressively with political weapons. Our painstaking, quiet, educational methods were necessary as a start. We had to sow the seed. But now we have been a great practical political issue, voted on at the polls. We must stride out of the realm of theoretical discussion and demand the vote in more authoritative tones."

The following year saw the opening of a new suffrage headquarters in New York City, and a suffrage ball at Madison Square Garden in March. Portia led one of the groups of suffragists advertising the event with sandwich boards. During the city's Fourth of July celebrations at City College Stadium, she represented Womanhood in an acted scene put on by the suffragists. She again played the role of Womanhood in a suffragist tableau in Central Park on September 24, 1916. In December, she was part of a group of suffragists that went to the Woolworth building to confront two New York congressmen who had not shown sufficient support for the suffrage vote. Portia must have rejoiced when the New York women finally won the vote in November 1917. Recalling the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment 35 years later, the image that still remained with her was "the radiant face of Mrs. Catt, her arms full of flowers, coming up Thirty-fourth Street from Penn Station."

Even after 1920, Portia remained active politically. She supported Harriet May Mills for Secretary of State, as part of the "Executive Committee for the Women's Non-Partisan Committee for the Selection and Election of Suitable Women to Public Office." She became part of The Woman's Pro-League Council, a group in favor of the League of Nations, and served as one of their directors and as the Chairman of the Political Committee. She also served as the "acting organizer for Suffolk County, [New York]" for the League of Women Voters, a group focused on educating women voters about taking advantage of their new-found right. She also attended the League of Nations meetings in 1924 in Geneva, Switzerland. On June 6, 1925, she married an Englishman, L. Rodney Berg in New York City. She was also elected to the National Institute of Social Sciences for her social work that year, and in 1930, the Institute reported that Portia had helped organize "the Bronxville branch of the League of Women Voters" and wrote a work titled "Speed and Civilization." She also spoke at a mass meeting in City Hall Park in New York City organized by the Women's Peace Society in August 1930. At that time, she was a member of the advisory council of the League of Nations Association.

In 1931, the League of Women Voters installed a tablet in the capitol at Albany, New York, inscribed with the names of many New York suffragists, among which Portia's name was listed. That year, she also became the Field Director for Greater New York, for the League of Nations Association. The following year, she was an executive member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She served both as a director and as the Committee Chairman for the Speakers' Bureau of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in 1937.

Portia's first husband passed away on January 9, 1941, and she married again, to Gerald Purcell-FitzGerald, on September 5, 1958. She herself passed away on July 7, 1970.

Sources:

"30,000 TO MARCH IN SUFFRAGE LINE: The Societies and Personages to Parade on May 3 Are Now Made Known AND WHAT THEY WILL WEAR Bands by the Score, Horsemen and Horsewomen, Foreign and Domestic Delegations to Be There." New York Times. April 25, 1913.

"30,000 Women in Monster Parade." The Woman's Journal XLIV, no. 18 (May 3, 1913).

American Women: The Official Who's Who Among the Women of the Nation. Vol. 3. Los Angeles: American Publications, 1939.

"Argument Failing, Suffragists Turn to 'Stunts.'" Woman's Protest 7, no. 5 (September 1915): 10.

"Aviatrix Aids New York State." The Woman's Journal XLIV, no. 36 (September 6, 1913): 283.

"BANKS GREET SUFFRAGISTS. Women Welcomed and Allowed to Present Their Arguments." New York Times. October 16, 1915.

Brown, Gertrude Foster. Gertrude Foster Brown to Miss Paul, March 26, 1913. National Woman's Party Papers, Part II: The Suffrage Years, 1913-1920, Series 1: Correspondence, 1891-1940: Section A, 1891-1915. Library of Congress and Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, Washington, D.C. ProQuest History Vault: Struggle for Women's Rights, Organizational Records, 1880-1990.

Bruno, Guido, ed. "Among Our Aristocrats." Bruno's Weekly 1 (December 4, 1915): 256.

"CAKE A SUFFRAGE PROBLEM: Volunteer Cooks Put to It to Supply Needs of Their Shop." New York Times. May 8, 1913.

"Campaign through the Century." Suffragist IV, no. 1 (January 1, 1916).

Chapman, Mary, and Angela Mills, eds. Treacherous Texts: An Anthology of U.S. Suffrage Literature, 1846-1946. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2011.

"Constitution Lost, 375,000; Suffrage Overwhelmed, New York 200,000, Pennsylvania 125,000, Bay State 124,000; Tammany Carries City; Republicans Keep Legislature." New York Times. 1915.

"COPELAND ON LEAGUE: Has Great Possibilities, He Writes Women Questioners." New York Times. November 3, 1922.

"Correspondence of National Organization Secretary: Committees: Minorities and Race Relations, Bertha McNeill, 1935-1937." Letter. Swarthmore College Peace Collection, August 28, 1937. The Records of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, United States Section, 1919-1959: Series C, Correspondence. Women's Studies Archive.

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"Exercises at Miss Brown's School." New York Times. May 28, 1898.

"FINDS USE FOR HUSBAND WHEN AEROPLANE BALKS: Ruth Law Gets Out of Swamp Only by His Dash for Spark Plug." New York Tribune. September 7, 1913.

Forty-Fifth Annual Report of the National-American Woman Suffrage Association Given at the Convention Held at Washington, D.C. November 29-Dec 5, 1913. New York, NY: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1913. http://archive.org/details/nationalamerican00pro.

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Goodier, Susan. Women Will Vote: Winning Suffrage in New York State. Ithaca, New York: Three Hills, an imprint of Cornell University Press, 2017.

"Grace Gallatin Seton Suffrage Correspondence and Memorabilia." Letter, December 6, 1911. Women's Studies Manuscript Collections from The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Series 1: Woman's Suffrage, Part D: New England.

Harrison, Emma. "WOMEN WON VOTE JUST 35 YEARS AGO: Veteran Campaigner Recalls Uphill Battle for Suffrage as Anniversary Passes." New York Times. August 17, 1955.

Harvey, Joanne Lynn. "First Women in Aviation." In Long Island Women: Activists and Innovators, edited by Natalie A. Naylor and Maureen O'Rourke Murphy. Interlaken, N.Y.: Empire State Books, 1998.

"HOLD RALLY ON BOSTON COMMON: Suffragists Demand Votes for Women. Miss Willis Tells of Their Experiences in New York. Says President Failed to Rise to Occasion." Boston Daily Globe. July 27, 1914.

Holmes, Frank R., ed. Who's Who in New York City and State. New York, N.Y.: Who's Who Publications, 1924. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000499023.

"Hylan Chosen Mayor, Plurality 147,000; Woman Suffrage Wins Probably by 80,000; Prohibition Close, Suffrage Loses, in Ohio." New York Times. November 7, 1917.

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"LAUD KELLOGG PACT AT PEACE MEETING: But Speakers at City Hall Park Urge Public Support to Outlaw All War. BROUN AND MALONE TALK 500 Attend Women's Peace Society Celebration of Second Anniversary of Treaty." New York Times. August 28, 1930.

"League of Nations Correspondence." Letter, December 6, 1921. Women's Studies Manuscript Collections from The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Series 1: Woman's Suffrage, Part B: New York. Folder 175. League of Nations and supporting organizations, correspondence, 1916-22. 62pp. ProQuest History Vault.

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"Many Brides Choose Today for Nuptials: Charlotte Church, Katharine Post and Portia Willis Among Those Who Will Wed." New York Times. June 6, 1925.

"MARCH AT NOON TODAY: Suffragists Ready With Banners for White House Visit. DR. SHAW TO BE SPOKESMAN Will Ask President to State Views on Constitutional Amendment -- Procession to Form Near Fifteenth and F Streets. Police Detailed to Protect Fair Paraders From Expected Crowds." The Washington Post. December 8, 1913.

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———. "Summer Work in New York." The Woman's Standard 24, no. 3 (July 1911).

"Miss Morgan's Work." The Woman's Journal 8, no. 11 (October 20, 1923): 19.

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"Mrs. Catt's Suffrage School." The Woman's Journal XLIV, no. 40 (October 4, 1913): 318.

"Negro Suffrage Headquarters." New York Times. September 2, 1915.

"NEW EQUAL SUFFRAGE BILL.: Senator Stillwell to Introduce One Taken to Albany by Women Leaders." New York Times. January 25, 1911.

"New York." The Woman's Journal XLII, no. 14 (April 15, 1911): 115.

"New York." The Woman's Journal 47, no. 10 (March 4, 1916): 77.

"No Shoes for Women. Those of the 'the Future' Will Be Most Simply Clad." Leather & Shoes 47 (June 1914).

"Obituary 1 -- No Title." New York Times. January 12, 1941.

"PLANS ALL READY FOR CITY'S FOURTH: Call for Busy Day of Patriotic Expression from Sunrise Till Far Into Midnight. COLLEGE STADIUM PROGRAM Long List of Features, In Which Many Organizations Will Join ;- Park and Block Exercises." New York Times. July 3, 1916.

"PROTESTING WOMEN MARCH IN MOURNING: Muffled Drums Beat as the Sombre Parade Moves Down Fifth Avenue. HATS RAISED TO PEACE FLAG Only 1,500 Are In Line, but Crowds Along Thoroughfare Show Sympathy by Silence." New York Times. August 30, 1914.

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"SUFFRAGE CAMPAIGN CLOSES AT MIDNIGHT: All Day and Night Open-Air Meetings Feature of End of Battle for the Vote. SPEAKERS FULL OF HOPE Women Fighters for the 'Cause' Tired, but Confident of Victory on Tuesday." New York Times. October 31, 1915.

"Suffrage Sandwich Day: Sales and Speeches to Be Made in Lower Broadway Tomorrow." New York Times. June 29, 1914.

"SUFFRAGE-AERIAL PARTY.: About 200 Women and a Few Men Gather on Hempstead Plains." New York Times. September 7, 1913.

"SUFFRAGISTS BUSY IN ALBANY: Senator Stilwell Puts in a Bill Giving Women the Vote." New York Times. January 26, 2911.

"Suffragists Plan Market: Flowers to Be Sold in Lower Broadway Today." New York Times. June 22, 1914.

"SUFFRAGISTS SILENT IN PARK GATHERING: But Audience Marches with Leaders to 5th Av. and Hears Speeches There. SOME ARE IN GREEK ROBES Forbidden to Have Tableaux, They Gave the Show and Procession. SUFFRAGISTS SILENT IN PARK GATHERING." New York Times. September 24, 1916.

"Suffragists Storm Antis." New York Times. May 7, 1913.

"SUFFRAGISTS TO GATHER.: Council Fire Night Will Be Celebrated Tomorrow." New York Times. August 5, 1915.

"SUFFRAGISTS TWICE INVADE STATE ST: Soap-Box Speech by Miss Portia Willis. P. E. U. Reinforcements Then Arrive With Miss Carpenter in Auto." Boston Daily Globe. July 29, 1914.

Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Blacks in the Diaspora. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1998. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/003961875.

Trasciatti, Mary Anne. "Athens or Anarchy? Soapbox Oratory and the Early Twentieth-Century American City." Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum 20, no. 1 (2013): 43–68. https://doi.org/10.5749/buildland.20.1.0043.

"Two Elephants to Carry Plank." The Woman's Journal 47, no. 18 (April 29, 1916): 137.

"Two Plead for Votes for Women: Miss Willis and Miss Carson Speak from Auto." Newspaper clipping. Blanche Ames scrapbooks and diaries. Women's Studies Manuscript Collections from The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Series 1: Woman's Suffrage, Part D: New England. Scrapbook, Vol. 119, 1913-15. 158pp. ProQuest History Vault: Women's Studies Manuscript Collections from the Schlesinger Library: Voting Rights, National Politics, and Reproductive Rights.

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"What Is Doing in Society." New York Times. February 16, 1906.

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"WOMEN MAKE PLEA FOR WALL ST. VOTES: Suffrage Meetings on Every Corner from the Ferry to Trinity Church. BROKERS BATTLE FOR FANS Interest in the Ticker Wanes When Buglers Announce Arrival of Campaigners." New York Times. September 16, 1915.

"WOMEN WIN PLEDGE OF CAR MEN'S HELP: Swap Promises to Be Docile Passengers for Support of Suffrage at Polls. PRETTY BUGLERS AID CAUSE Pay Cars and Barns Decorated for Their Visits ;- Only One Man Runs Away from Argument." New York Times. August 27, 1915.

 

Image from: Tuttle, Florence Guertin. "World Policies Women Want." Our World 1 (1922): 42.

 

Image from: Maud Nathan, Once upon a Time and Today. New York, N.Y.: G. P. Putnam's sons, 1933. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/010074804.

Note: Photo is on a page between pages 176 and 177. No date for the photo was mentioned in the surrounding text.

 

Image from: Service, Bain News. Peace Parade, Portia Willis. 1914. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014697171/.

Note: Portia is the one with the "Chief Marshal" sash across her front.

 

Image from: "A Page of Marchers." The Woman's Journal XLIII, no. 18 (May 4, 1912): 144.

 

Image from: "A Bird of Good Omen." The Woman's Journal XLIV, no. 41 (October 11, 1913): 321.

 

Image from: Service, Bain News. Peace Parade, Portia Willis. 1914. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014697177/.

 

Image from: Service, Bain News. Portia Willis. Between 1910-1915. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ggbain.15678.

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