Bitter Battle for Suffrage Finally Over

By THOMAS P. FARNER | May 15, 2019

Surf City — In January 1917, Alice Paul, the president of the National Woman’s Party, and other members began picketing the White House, demanding passage of a constitutional amendment granting all U.S. women the vote. President Woodrow Wilson had told a group of women on the 6th, “I am tied to a conviction which I have had all my life, that changes of this sort ought to be brought State by State. It is a deeply matured conviction on my part, and therefore I would be without excuse to my own constitutional principles if I lent my support to this very important movement for an amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

Thirty months later, after arrests, riots, imprisonment and torture by the U.S. government, and supported by a Republican takeover of Congress, the amendment had passed in the House of Representatives and was on the verge of clearing the second hurdle to its passage. On the eve of the vote in the Senate, Paul announced, “Senators have told me, that they were in receipt of cable messages from the suffrage, after asking them to vote for suffrage, after certain of our Washington demonstrations, so we cannot but feel our work has had its results. The burning of the president’s messages on democracy had had its effect. The senate will pass the amendment this session. The President could not afford to talk of democracy abroad and know there were demonstrations for it at home.”

She was cautiously confident.

“The scene is apparently set for the last act of the forty-year struggle to secure justice for women from the United States Senate. Nothing but futile obstructionist tactics can prevent consideration of the amendment tomorrow.”

The next day, press services reported she was right to be cautious.

“Final action in the Senate on the House resolution for submission of the Susan B. Anthony woman suffrage constitutional amendment was prevented today by debate, principally by suffrage opponents, and by discussion of the peace treaty. The resolution was made unfinished business and it is believed that before adjournment tomorrow, the last roll call will be reached with adoption apparently assured.”

Opponents had tried to insert “white” in front of the word “women.” The change was voted down, but it took one whole day of debate. Supporters of the amendment announced it would finally be taken up on June 4.

When the Senate was called to order on that date, another change was proposed.

“That the following article is proposed as an amendment to the Constitution, which shall be valid to all intents and purposes as part of the Constitution when ratified by conventions in three-fourths of the several States.”

This in effect would prevent the ratification by the states until after the 1920 presidential election because special conventions would be required and delegates elected for the purpose of voting on the amendment.

The Philadelphia Inquirer on June 5 explained, “The fight today centered about the Underwood proposal that suffrage would be voted upon at the conventions of the State Legislatures, and thus the people of the several States would be given a chance to register their opinion directly upon the question. Senators opposing suffrage declared that the passage of the Susan B. Anthony resolution which requires only the ratification of thirty-six states, was an invasion of State’s rights.”

However, this last change was rejected, and the issue finally came to the floor. New York Sen. James Wadsworth spoke of states such as New Jersey, where in 1915 a vote of the state’s male citizens had rejected giving women the vote.

“Now the question is whether the people of these States are competent to settle the question for themselves. There is no tremendous emergency facing the country, no revolution or rebellion threatened, which would seem to make it necessary to impose on the people of these States a thing they have said as free citizens they do not require or desire. Is it contrary to the spirit of American institutions that they shall be left free to decide these things for themselves?”

Despite all of the delaying tactics, the vote was finally taken. Republican promises to pass the amendment were fulfilled by 56 in favor to 25 opposed. The New York Times reported, “Suffragists thronged the Senate galleries in anticipation of the final vote, and when the outcome was announced by President Pro Tem. Cummins they broke into deafening applause. For two minutes the demonstration went on, Senator Cummins making no effort to check it.”

Maud Younger had been with Alice Paul since the beginning, and she was in the gallery.

“… on June fourth, for the fifth time in a little more than a year, we sat in the Senate gallery to hear a vote on the Suffrage Amendment. The new Congress, coming in had brought us two more votes. … There was no excitement. The coming of the women, the waiting of the women, the expectancy of the women … it was all very dull.

“We walked slowly homeward, talking a little, silent a great deal. This was the day toward which women had been struggling for more than half a century! We were in the dawn of woman’s political power in America.”

Paul knew there was still work to be done.

“The women of this country will vote in the 1920 elections. … Women who have taken part in the long struggle for freedom feel today the full relief of the victory. Freedom has come not as a gift but as a triumph, and it is therefore a spiritual as well as a political freedom which women receive.

“But years behind can now well be forgotten, for in the final act of women’s enfranchisement all political parties have acted with cordial generosity and the country has supported our cause with enthusiasm.

“There is no doubt of immediate ratification. We enter upon this final stage of the campaign joyously, knowing that women will be enfranchised citizens of this great democracy within a year.”

While the Republicans and even President Wilson were trying to gain a political advantage by saying they were the ones responsible for the amendment, the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court wrote to Paul saying, “Will you permit me to congratulate you upon the great triumph in which you have been so important a factor.

“Your place in history is assured. Some years ago, when I first met you, I predicted that your name would be written ‘on the dusty roll the ages keep.’ There were politicians, and a large degree of public sentiment which could be won only by the methods which you adopted. … It is certain that but for you, success would have been delayed for many years to come. Permit me to express what I believe will be the verdict of history.”

It’s ironic to note that most modern history books give the credit to Wilson and the Democrats for passage of the amendment giving women the vote. But 36 battles in state legislatures would have to be won before November 1920 if all women would have the opportunity to vote for the next president. For Alice Paul, and for myself, one state would stand out. That would be the battle in New Jersey in February 1920.

Until next winter, for me it will be off to other subjects.

Next Week: Decoration Day 1920.

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