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Will Women’s Suffrage Finally Pass?

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Apr 24, 2019
Source: United States Library of Congress Alice Paul, 1915

Surf City — As April 1919 was drawing to a close, Burlington County’s Alice Paul, the leader of the National Woman’s Party, watched helplessly as hopes for the passage of a constitutional amendment allowing all women to vote for U.S. president in 1920 seemed to be dead. Since former New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson had taken office as president in 1913, she and her supporters had been demonstrating, picketing and demanding action by the Democratic Party in support of the amendment.

In November 1918, the Republicans had won control of both houses of Congress promising passage of the amendment, but Congress wasn’t scheduled to return to the capital until December. When the issue was taken up, it would require a two-thirds vote of both houses to be followed by the approval of 36 of the 48 states, making it unlikely women would vote in 1920.

On May 1 Paul spoke cautiously, saying, “The amendment is again threatened with defeat unless the leaders of the Republican party which will be in power in the new congress, secure another vote. … In spite of repeated statement by the Republican leaders that the amendment will pass as soon as congress convenes, suffragists cannot rest content while one of the necessary two-thirds votes is still unpledged.”

The next day, the Charlotte Observer editorialized, “As a matter of fact, the last ‘count’ revealed the fact that they now lack but one vote of securing the necessary two-thirds. It appears reasonable to suppose that out of the new timber in the senate the requisite vote will be developed. It is claimed by Miss Alice Paul, chairman of the woman party, and its active and entertaining press agent, that none of the new senators has declared against the amendment, while nine have given the word that they will support it.”

After some research it was found “The senatorial line-up at last reports indicated that of the 92 senators who have made bold to say how they stand, 63 are for the amendment and 29 against it. Of the senators under ‘pledge,’ 38 are republicans and 25 are democrats. Of those against, 10 are republicans and 19 are democrats. Reduced to percentage, it develops that 78 per cent of the republicans and 53 percent of the democratic senators favor the amendment.”

None of this would be of importance until December unless the president called for a special session of Congress. Meanwhile, Wilson was in Paris and was beginning to have some problems back home. He had negotiated as part of the peace treaty ending World War I the inclusion of a new League of Nations, which many feared would involve the U.S. in endless participation in European affairs.

Wilson had also sanctioned the use of American troops as part of an international incursion into the newly formed Soviet Union. Senate ratification of the treaty would be required, and opposition to it was growing. Finally, Wilson faced several budget problems that all threatened his popularity as he was still eyeing a third term as president in 1920.

To the surprise of many, on May 7 he changed everything when there came from Paris, “Whereas public interest requires that the Congress of the United States should be convened in extra session … Now, therefore, I, Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States of America do hereby proclaim that an extraordinary occasion requires the congress of the United States to convene in extra session at the capitol in the District of Columbia on the 19th day of May, 1919 at 12 o’clock noon, of which all persons who shall at that time be entitled to act as members thereof are hereby required to take notice.”

Newspapers across the country carried the United Press explanation of the reasons behind issuing the proclamation.

“President Wilson will not be here at the opening session. … It is understood that he desires Congress to begin work on appropriation bills that they may be passed before the beginning of the new fiscal year, July 1.

“The Senate, with the text of the peace treaty before it, will also be able, it is stated, to begin discussion of it, and thereby hasten action on it after the President has returned and delivered his treaty message.

“This would indicate that the President probably will issue a statement in Paris on the treaty that his voice may be heard in the discussion here.

“At the White House, it was stated that the President’s advisers felt that Congress should start work immediately on necessary supply bills. Secretary Class, it was said, should hasten preparation for providing funds particularly for war risk insurance.

“The need for appropriations for the railroads and other activities – as well as  running expenses for the departments – made action on the urgent deficiency bill imperative, it was said.”

The next day The New York Times explained, “Carter Glass, Secretary of the Treasury, arrived in Providence today simultaneously with the announcement that President Wilson, at his suggestion, had called an extra session of Congress for May 19. He said urgent need of funds for the War Risk Insurance Bureau was the main reason for summoning Congress so soon, earlier than Democratic leaders had expected.

“‘The War Risk Bureau is completely at the end of its tether,’ said the Secretary. ‘The need for money to maintain it has become so urgent that there are other appropriation bills that failed at the last sitting of Congress which are almost as vitally important, but the War Risk Bureau’s needs led me to urge the President to call this extra session.’”

While Wilson and his party were talking of ratifying the treaty and appropriations, there was a small note on the same page of the Times.

“It is generally accepted that the Republicans will, almost as soon as Congress convenes, endeavor to force the suffrage amendment through the Senate, and also to take the telegraphs and telephones away from the control of Postmaster General Burleson and return them to their original owners.”

The special session of Congress had opened the door for Alice Paul and her supporters to make one last push for the amendment to be passed before the 1920 election. On May 12, the Baltimore Sun reported, “The National Woman’s party is not yet certain of the vote in the Senate to put the woman suffrage amendment resolution over. They fear backsliders. Miss Alice Paul, head of the party, has gone to New Hampshire to build back fires under Senator Keyes.

“‘With not a single vote to spare in the Senate, the Suffrage amendment cannot yet be considered assured,’ said she, on leaving here tonight.”

On the eve of the new Republican Congress, the Trenton Times announced that Paul’s fears might be well-founded.

“According to the New Jersey Anti-Suffragists the Suffrage amendment will not fare as well in the forthcoming Congress as it did in the last. They look for its default even (in) this House. A statement to this effect was issued yesterday in connection with the call for the annual meeting of the Antis, which will be held in New York, May 28.”

The question was simple: Would the Republicans keep their promise and bring the amendment to the floor for a vote, and then, with the world watching, cast them in favor of universal woman’s suffrage?

Next Week: Mr. Speaker!

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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