Founding Feminists is the FMF’s daily herstory column. Once a day, we head back in time to see what was happening way back when.
The unprecedented elation expressed by suffragists in the Senate gallery earlier today has now spread nationwide, along with the news of the biggest victory so far in the history of the movement for women’s rights.
41 years after the Susan B. Anthony Amendment was first introduced into Congress for the purpose of winning the vote for women nationwide, today’s Senate vote of 56 to 25 finished the process of gaining approval by 2/3 of both Houses of Congress, and sends the proposed 19th Amendment to the States for ratification.
In recognition of their many decades of work for the measure, representatives of the National American Woman Suffrage Association were invited to be present when House Speaker Frederick Gillett signed the suffrage bill, then the gold pen he used to sign it was presented to N.A.W.S.A. Tomorrow, Vice-President Thomas R. Marshall is expected to sign on behalf of the Senate.
The final step to victory was the targeting of anti-suffrage Senators in the November elections, reducing their number enough in the new Congress to turn the measure’s previous narrow defeats into a two-vote victory today. But though opponents knew they were fighting a losing battle, they kept putting up every imaginable roadblock, from a filibuster to numerous attempts to add “riders” to the amendment as a last ditch strategy to dilute its power or delay passage.
One example from yesterday clearly illustrated why the Southern wing of the Democratic Party has been so vehemently opposed to the Anthony Amendment, and held up its passage for so long. Senator Pat Harrison of Mississippi offered a rider that would make the suffrage amendment apply to white women only. It was rejected 58 to 17. When segregationists were unable to accomplish their goal that way, Senator Edward James Gay of Louisiana tried another approach: Change the section which gives Congress the power to enforce the amendment to one which leaves enforcement to State Legislatures. This, of course, would have reassured those who are still ignoring the 15th Amendment that they would be free to do the same with the 19th. His proposal was defeated 62 to 19, and so the race-neutral wording endorsed by all suffrage groups, composed by Susan B. Anthony herself in 1875, and already passed twice by the House, was preserved intact.
Section 1: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Section 2: Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
When the final four-hour debate was over, and the five-minute standing ovation from the Senate gallery after the vote had died down, the hard job of gaining ratification by 36 of the 48 State Legislatures began immediately. Fortunately, a proposal by Senator Oscar Underwood, Democrat of Alabama, which would have required that the amendment be submitted to State Constitutional Conventions, rather than State Legislatures, was rejected 55 to 28, because this would have made the ratification process considerably longer and more cumbersome.
Suffrage leaders are as confident that 36 approvals can be obtained before the 1920 Presidential election as anti-suffragists are that they can get at least one house in each of 13 State Legislatures to permanently stand against nationwide woman suffrage. The opposition would literally have to be permanent to stop the amendment, since there is no time limit on how long the States have to ratify, a restriction uniquely applied to the 18th Amendment.
Alice Paul, already on the road and campaigning for ratification in Minnesota, and who along with other National Woman’s Party members braved arrests, jail brutality, hunger strikes and force-feedings as part of a successful campaign to get President Wilson to finally endorse and then work for the Anthony Amendment, said today:
Women who have taken part in the long struggle for freedom feel today the full relief of 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 ….There is no doubt of ratification by the States. We enter upon the campaign for special sessions of the Legislatures to accomplish ratification before 1920 in the full assurance that we shall win.
Carrie Chapman Catt, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association since 1915, said from New York City:
The last stage of the fight is to obtain ratification of the amendment so women may vote in the Presidential election of 1920. This we are confident will be achieved … In the result we can turn our backs today upon the end of a very long and arduous struggle needlessly darkened and embittered by the stubbornness of a few at the expense of many. ‘Eyes front’ is the watch word now as we begin another struggle, short, as the other was long, the struggle for ratification.
The ratification campaign is complicated by the fact that opponents succeeded in delaying Congressional approval so long that many State Legislatures which began meeting earlier this year have either already adjourned, or are about to, and therefore special sessions will have to be called by State governors in order to gain some of the necessary approvals before the legislatures reconvene for their next regular sessions in 1921.
But the power and political sophistication now being exercised by the National Woman’s Party and the National American Woman Suffrage Association seem equal to the task. In the same way that credit should be shared for getting the measure this far, both groups – and their radically different tactics – should soon be dividing up the credit for ratification of what now seems certain to become the 19th Amendment.