Celebrating Women’s History Month: Maryville’s all-ladies band helped suffragette cause

Music worked its magic…

As the parade began in front of the Capitol Building, a crowd of heckling and resentful men refused to let the marchers move forward. The police in the area were unable to cope with the unruly crowds, estimated at around 250,000 people.

In desperation, Miss Alma Nash, band leader of the Missouri Ladies Military Band of Maryville, signaled the downbeat and her band began to play.

The crowd at the Suffragette Pageant in Washington, DC, quieted. The band played its entire repertoire, all the time surrounded by the mob of men. And just as they ended their final song, the cavalry from nearby Fort Myers arrived and opened the way for the suffragette marchers to complete their parade to Continental Hall.

Nash later told a Maryville reporter on March 13, 1913: “We did not have time to stop and think about the really important thing we did do when our band led the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. We were not right in the lead when the parade started; a number of women escorts, a number of walking officers of the National Equal Suffrage Association, with our band following, was the order when we first started.

“We had gone but a short distance when the crowd started closing up toward the line of the parade, and men blockaded a place in the street a short distance ahead. One of the suffrage officers came rushing back to us and told us to march on ahead and lead; that it would be necessary for the band to open the way proved true.

“We were not molested in the least and although the march was slow on account of the crowds, no one offered to stand in our way down the avenue.”

1st ladies-only marching band

In 1913, as women were strongly petitioning for suffrage, the leaders of several women’s groups decided to organize a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue to call more attention to their cause, especially since women had never been allowed to march before. The parade on March 3 was to precede the inauguration of President-elect Woodrow Wilson on March 4.

Maryville, with a population of 4,700 at that time, was the typical, conservative rural town, with the exception of a small liberal sector of wealthy professionals who educated both their sons and their daughters. Dr. George and Mary Houston Nash were one such family, and their daughter, Alma, began to study music as a young girl. She opened a school of music on Buchanan Street in Maryville in 1905.

Nash later formed 24 of her students, from stenographers, teachers and even high school students, into a women’s band. They played throughout the summer of 1912 at picnics, fairs and parties throughout Nodaway County. After reading about the parade in a newspaper, the band members jumped at the opportunity.

Elizabeth Kent, chairman of the parade band committee, wrote to Nash on January 25, 1913: “We should be delighted to have a ladies band in our parade….Your band is the only one which professes an interest in suffrage.”

With the telegram, they also received notification that funds would be secured on their behalf to help the Maryville band make the trip. And so, the fund-raising began. Local businessmen, the Maryville Commercial Club, the Missouri Equal Suffrage League, the national suffrage organization, families of the band members as well as people from across the state and even around the country chipped in to help their effort.

The 23 members included Grace O’Brien, Mary Evans, Hazel Garrett, Velma Lanning and Gertrude Kirch, cornet; Mary O’Brien, Anna Dougan, Ora Quinn and Helen Young, B flat clarinet; Margaret Conway, E flat clarinet; Helen Rowley, piccolo; Lela Caudle and Mrs. Del Thompson, alto saxophone; Hazel Vandervoort, B flat baritone; Maye Shipps, slide trombone; Florence Shipps, E flat bass; Mrs. Velma Gray Johnson, B flat bass; Esther Eversole, snare drums; Orlena Helpley, bass drum; Elizabeth Nash, cymbals; Myrtle Lanning, B flat tenor sax. A former member, Selma Young, from Creston, IA, also joined the band.

Marching at the Capitol

While there were a total of 10 bands in the Suffragette Parade, the Missouri Ladies Military Band of Maryville was the only one comprised of only women.

At the completion of the pageant, band members met Anna Shaw, president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. They also watched President Wilson’s inauguration, visited Congress and toured Mount Vernon.

In the book “Suffrage Comes to the Women of Nodaway County, MO,” Martha Cooper wrote: “The Missouri Ladies Military Band of Maryville did not initially set out to be the nation’s first all-female suffragist marching band, but the young women were in the right place at the right moment to take this place in history. Upon their return from Washington, March 8, 1913, Alma Nash, director of the band, said of the troupe’s courageous march down Pennsylvania Avenue, ‘the part they took in the suffragette parade is not fully realized by them.’”

Upon returning home, the band played concerts all summer long around Northwest Missouri. While Nash’s music school flourished, the band soon broke up as the members developed other interests.

Nash later moved to Kansas City where she played and continued to teach hundreds of students, however, she told one of her former students that “the march in Washington was the most memorable event of her life.”

Seven years after the Missouri Ladies Military Band marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, women won the right to vote.

And those young ladies’ music magically played a small part in the process.

90th anniversary of women’s suffrage

The Nodaway County Historical Society’s museum will be marking the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage this August with a special program. Anyone with any information, pictures or shared stories and memories of family members or friends of women in the Missouri Ladies Military Band of Maryville should call Melissa Middleswart at 660.582.8687.

Information for this article came from a 1966 Kansas City Star article, “Tribute to a Music Teacher: Her Ladies Band Helped Suffragette Cause,” a 1984 KC Star-Times article, “Woman played to beat the ban on vote,” and from the book, “Suffrage comes to the women of Nodaway County, MO” by Martha Cooper.

 
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