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Suffrage for 1920 in Senate’s Hands

By THOMAS P. FARNER | May 08, 2019

Alice Paul of New Jersey, head of the National Women’s Party, faced three increasingly more difficult hurdles on the road to passage of the constitutional amendment that would give all women the vote in the election of 1920. Passage by two-thirds of the House of Representatives and two-thirds of the Senate, and ratification by three-fourths of the states, would finally bring her victory, but time was very short.

When Congress was called into special session in May 1918, the first action taken was passage of the 19th Amendment. All eyes then turned to the Senate, where it had been defeated before by a single vote.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on May 22, “With the announcement by Senator Hale, of Maine, today, that he would vote for suffrage, the opposition in the Senate, according to the latest poll, now musters only nine Republicans and nineteen Democrats, with two additional Democrats still non-committal. Those who have expressed their intention of voting for the constitutional amendment included forty Republicans and twenty-six Democrats, giving a margin of two votes in favor of the amendment.”

Alice Paul’s reaction was immediate.

“The statement of Senator Hale that he would vote suffrage, following upon a similar announcement by the new Republican Senator from New Hampshire, Mr. Keyes, gives assurance that the Republicans in the Senate will follow the splendid lead of the Republicans in the House and speedily pass the suffrage measure. The pledge of Senator Hale means that the Republicans have now given over four-fifths of their strength in the Senate to the support of suffrage. By so definitely lining their party up in support of suffrage in both houses of Congress the Republicans are giving their party the honor of making a most splendid contribution to the fight for the political freedom of women.”

The next day the Trenton Times reported New Jersey’s two Republican senators were now supporting the amendment.

“The result fairly represents the sentiment of the people of this State, which has undergone a great change since the suffrage amendment was defeated by more than 51,000 majority at the special election in 1915. Both Senators Frelinghuysen and Edge are in favor of the amendment, and there is said to be little doubt that it will get the required two-thirds vote in the upper house as soon as it can be reached on the calendar.”

Over the next several days there appeared to be several attempts in the Senate to slow down the amendment as papers across the nation followed its progress.

“May 23. – Efforts to speed action on the constitutional amendment granting Woman Suffrage, were blocked this afternoon by opponents of suffrage. Senator Johnson, of California, asked to have the suffrage resolution, passed by the House sent to the calendar without first being considered by a committee. Senator Underwood of Alabama, objected and demanded that the measure be sent to committee.

“May 26. – Opponents of woman suffrage succeeded today in blocking efforts to expedite Senator consideration of the constitutional amendment resolution passed last week by the House, but supporters plan to renew the fight Wednesday with the hope of bringing the measure to a vote Thursday.

“May 28. – The House resolution proposing submission of a woman suffrage constitutional amendment to the States was reported favorably to the Senate late today, and Chairman Watson of the Woman Suffrage Committee gave notice that he would call up the resolution for debate on Monday. A final vote is expected soon after.”

While delaying the inevitable seemed foolhardy, Marguerite Edwards wrote a June 1 article for the Richmond Sun that tried to explain why each delay could be important.

“June, 1919. Seems destined to put the vote into the hands of American women – just too late to make it of much effect in the national elections of November, 1920. WHY? Because to become effective, the suffrage amendment to the constitution must be ratified by thirty-six state legislatures.”

The facts were “The last bi-ennial session of the majority of state legislatures convened in January, 1919, and adjourned a few weeks later – to meet no more until January, 1921 – one month too late to let the ladies in on choosing the next president.

“In order to ratify the amendment in time for the 1920 elections at least twenty-five state governors would have to summon the legislatures in special session.

“The chances are that that will NOT be done.”

And if the delay worked, “Therefore, the old-line politicians who count on ‘influence’ and ‘control’ and ‘tied-up’ votes will not have to lie awake nights worrying over the unknown quantity of women’s votes THIS election.”

Meanwhile, back in the Senate on June 3, “Without opposition, Senator Watson, of Indiana, brought up the Equal Suffrage Amendment in the Senate this afternoon and planned for consideration until disposed of. Senator Watson stated that he believed ‘there would be no need for lengthy debate.’ Senator Harrison, of Mississippi, immediately introduced an amendment Providing that Suffrage be granted only to white women, and demanded a vote.”

The change in the amendment was defeated. The word “white” would not appear in the amendment before the word “woman.” Finally, the debate was able to begin – but in the Senate, you can talk as long as you want and are able to hold the floor. Sen. James A. Reed of Missouri began to speak.

“It is an outrage on our form of government, perpetrated with the deliberate intention of escaping the work attached to getting the vote state by state. … The majority of the advocates of this measure have little regard for the Constitution of this country.”

Next Reed went after Alice Paul and her followers, saying, “Those women who have paraded before the White House and gloried in the jail sentences they have served because they broke the law are in the same frame of mind as were the men who caused the bombs to be placed at the door of the Attorney General’s home last night. I do not mean that these good women would do anything criminal intentionally, but just in proportion as they show the disposition to break the law are they removed from that mental state necessary to set up good government.”

Reed continued, saying something that today would set social media on fire.

“The majority of women in this country do respect our laws but that majority is at home, a good place for women to be. The women did their part nobly in the last war, but when it came down to the practical carrying on of the hostilities it was the boy who went over the top and went to his death with a cheer on his lips. I think my greatest objection to this amendment becoming a reality is the fact that women are much more likely to be imposed upon as a class by the fake propagandist. Even some men to-day have shown that they lacked the power to deliberate. I fear that on some evil day the man with the cure-all may be able to impose his idea on a sufficient number of women to bring some harm to this nation.”

The New York Tribune explained what followed.

“At 4:30 o’clock, when the galleries were almost empty Senator Watson announced that inasmuch as several Senators wished to speak on the amendment, he would call for recess until to-morrow.

“‘I shall bring the amendment up at 12 o’clock to-morrow,’ he said, ‘and shall insist that the Senate stay in session until this matter has been settled.’”

Would June 4, 1919, finally be the date when the vote was taken? Or would it be one of long speeches and little action?

Next Week: It’s now or never.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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