Congress Takes Up Suffrage Vote

By THOMAS P. FARNER | May 01, 2019

Surf City — The month of May had begun with disappointment for Alice Paul and her National Woman’s Party, who were battling to amend the Constitution to grant all women the right to vote in the 1920 presidential election. The Republican Party had won control of Congress the previous November, promising to support the amendment, but Congress was not scheduled to meet until December, making ratification of the amendment by the states unlikely before the presidential election.

Then, on May 7, President Woodrow Wilson, who was in Paris negotiating the treaty ending World War I, announced a special session of Congress to meet on May 19 for the purpose of passing needed appropriation bills. This announcement allowed Paul and her followers a chance if they could act quickly. She immediately left Washington for New Hampshire to see its newly elected senator.

The Trenton Times of May 16 announced, “Prospect of adoption by Congress of the Susan B. Anthony woman suffrage resolution was bettered by receipt of information yesterday that Senator-elect Henry W. Keyes, of New Hampshire, Republican, would vote for the measure. It was learned that Mr. Keyes had sent a telegram to his constituents announcing his intention to support the resolution and stating that he regarded New Hampshire as the pivotal state.”

As soon as Congress met, there was some surprise at what was happening. The New York Evening World reported, “The Woman Suffrage Constitutional Amendment got top place to-day on the House calendar. By general agreement Representative Mann’s joint resolution, similar to the measure passed last session by the House and defeated in the Senate, was designated number one.”

Sometimes government can act quickly.

“Representative Mondell of Wyoming, Republican leader, announced in the House to-day the resolution proposing submission of an Equal Suffrage Constitutional Amendment would be called up to-morrow for passage. His announcement followed a favorable report on the resolution of Representative Mann of Illinois, by the House Suffrage Committee.

“A similar resolution was offered in the Senate to-day by Senator Jones of New Mexico, retiring Chairman of the Senate Woman Suffrage Committee, and supporters plan to urge quick action.”

Wilson, in Paris, watched as the Republicans were becoming the party of suffrage. He decided to add something to his lengthy message to Congress, which began, “Gentlemen of the Congress: I deeply regret my inability to be present at the opening of the extra-ordinary session of the Congress. It still seems to be my duty to take part in the counsels of the peace conference and contribute what I can to the solution of the innumerable questions to whose settlement it has had to address itself.”

What followed was a long message covering tax appropriations and labor relations. Then near the end of the message, “Will you not permit me, turning from these matters, to speak once more and very earnestly of the proposed amendment to the constitution which would extend the suffrage to women and which passed the House of Representatives at the last session of the Congress. It seems to me that every consideration of justice and of public advantage calls for the immediate adoption of that amendment and its submission forthwith to the legislatures of the several states. Throughout all the world this long delayed extension of the suffrage is looked for: in the United States longer, I believe, than anywhere else. The necessity for it and the immense advantage of it to the national life, has been urged and debated by women and men who saw the need for it and urged the policy of it when it required steadfast courage to be so much beforehand with the common conviction.”

Was the courage he spoke of that of Alice Paul and her supporters, whom his government had thrown into jail, force-fed and mistreated? As the president’s words arrived, the House of Representatives was already was in session. The New York Tribune of May 20 stated, “Woman suffrage was the first legislative business in the House of Representatives to-day. James R. Mann, chairman of the Woman Suffrage Committee in the House, introduced House joint resolution No. 1 on suffrage and said the bill would be reported out of committee and brought to a vote at the earliest possible date.

“The resolution introduced by Representative Mann was the ‘Susan B. Anthony’ amendment. It reads, ‘Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled (two-thirds of each House concurring therein) that the following article is proposed as an amendment to the Constitution … ‘The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be determined or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.’”

During a debate, Democrat Champ Clark of Missouri, the former speaker of the House for the entire time Wilson had been president, then spoke.

“When I came here to Congress the voice of the suffragists was like that of John the Baptist crying in the wilderness. It was more of a joke than anything else. I don’t think woman suffrage is going to precipitate the millennium, but it is bound to come. The State of Missouri at the last session went as far as possible in giving women the vote. I believe in States’ rights as much as any man, but in voting for the amendment I represent the people of Missouri.”

Representative Mann addressed President Wilson’s message, saying, “It is true that the President and Democratic leaders have frequently talked in favor of woman suffrage, but a majority of them have never voted for it. Some of them have been long on promises, but short on fulfillment, as they are on everything else. But this is not a partisan question, and I hope that partisanship will be kept out of it, and each member on each side will vote with a full sense of his responsibility. The amendment is in line with progress. Women will receive the suffrage and will take their share in the management of government.”

The Associated Press reported on the scene inside the House of Representatives.

“Practically all members of the House were in their seats when debate began and the galleries were fairly well filled. Among the spectators were many representatives of suffrage organizations.

“Some efforts by opponents to amend the resolution were expected, but supporters (hoped) the measure would be passed by an overwhelming vote.

“The resolution is the historic Susan B. Anthony draft, proposing submission to the States of an equal franchise amendment to the Constitution. It was adopted by the last House 274 to 136 on January 10, 1910, but twice failed in the Senate, first by two votes and then by one. … A large margin over the requisite two-thirds majority was predicted today.”

Then came a dispatch to the New York Sun. “The woman suffrage resolution, virtually the historic Susan B. Anthony amendment, went through the House to-day with 42 votes to spare. … The easy passage of the resolution to-day was a clean-cut Republican victory and the Democratic votes recorded in the affirmative were not needed to insure adoption of the measure by the House.”

In less than 48 hours the House had passed the amendment. Now it was time for the Senate. The amendment had made it to the Senate floor before, only to fail the last time by just one vote. As they say talk is cheap … votes count.

Next Week: Will the Senate act?

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