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Claiborne Catlin’s Saddlebags

Probably the most iconic image of the American women’s suffrage movement is Inez Milholland astride a white horse leading a suffrage parade. Newspapers were fascinated by her and yet her horse, whose name was Gray Dawn, rarely received any attention. This was a surprising omission, because when you start to look, horses were everywhere in the suffrage campaign. While automobiles were often featured as novelties, horses pulled floats and served as trusty mounts for parade marshals and other dignitaries. Suffragists confidently riding horses like military leaders made an especially powerful political statement.

Occasionally horses moved beyond supporting roles to become leading characters in their own right. That certainly applies to the horses (six in all) Claiborne Catlin rode on her solitary suffrage pilgrimage across Massachusetts in 1914. Over the course of four months Catlin covered 530 miles, organizing fifty-nine meetings and visiting thirty-seven cities and towns. Setting out penniless, she took up collections after her talks and relied on the generosity of strangers to cover her expenses for food and lodging, her horse’s too.

Catlin traveled light. Her traveling clothes consisted of a khaki jacket and divided skirt donated by Filene’s Department Store, supplemented by a matching khaki hat, brown riding gloves, one seersucker waist, a change of underwear, a yellow rain slicker, plus toiletries, a fountain pen, and a road map. All her personal effects, as well as a parcel of leaflets and a horse blanket, had to fit into this pair of saddlebags. The final touch was a white, green and gold shoulder strap which said “Votes for Women.” Claiborne Catlin’s suffrage pilgrimage shows how ordinary women were moved to do extraordinary things for the cause of suffrage and in the process were forever changed themselves.