Founding Feminists is the FMF’s daily herstory column.

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Absolute, final, total victory!

Twenty-six thousand, three hundred and thirty-four very long and difficult days ago, a small but brave group of suffrage pioneers declared “… that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” Today, the Secretary of State proclaimed that the U.S. Constitution now says:

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” and that “Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The battle to add those two simple sentences to the Constitution took so long that of the 300 who attended the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, 100 of whom signed the “Declaration of Sentiments” on July 20, 1848, only Charlotte Woodward Pierce is still living. (And she’s eagerly looking forward to casting her first vote on November 2nd!)

Since woman suffrage has been postponed so long, it probably should have been expected that the day would begin with one last, frustrating delay. The train from Nashville, carrying Tennessee’s signed and sealed certificate of ratification (the 36th and final one needed for Secretary Colby to certify that the 19th Amendment had been properly approved by 2/3 of both Houses of Congress and 3/4 of the States) arrived late in Washington D.C.

Secretary Colby expected the document to be delivered by 12:30 a.m., at which time he would leave home, go to the State Department and issue his proclamation. But it wasn’t until about 3:45 a.m. that Charles Cooke called the Secretary to let him know that the certification had just arrived. Colby thought this an unseemly time to sign such an important document, and since there was no possibility of anti-suffragists getting an injunction in the next few hours to prevent him from signing the ratification proclamation, he decided to have Tennessee’s certificate delivered to him at home, and sign the document in the morning.

After double-checking to be sure that all the necessary documents from Congress and the States regarding the Susan B. Anthony Amendment were in order, he signed the proclamation at 8:00, using a single steel pen, and witnessed only by F.K. Neilsen, State Department Solicitor, and Mr. Cooke.

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The fact that none of those who had worked so hard and made such sacrifices for suffrage got to see the actual signing of the proclamation seems an injustice, but it was not an intentional one. Because there were so many who had made major contributions to the effort – and the fact that two of the principal groups were not on friendly terms with each other – Colby felt it was impossible to decide who to invite to a formal signing ceremony.

Abby Scott Baker, of the National Woman’s Party, expressed the feelings of many suffragists:

This was the final culmination of the women’s fight, and women, irrespective of factions, should have been allowed to be present when the proclamation was signed. However, the women of America have fought a big fight and nothing can take away from their triumph.

Because the news that the 19th Amendment’s ratification was now officially recognized, and would be defended by the full might of the U.S. Government arrived simultaneously with the realization that they had not been present at the signing of the proclamation, other suffrage leaders were also far more focused on this momentous victory than any personal slight.

Alice Paul, whose dedication to suffrage was proven by enduring imprisonment, hunger strikes, and force-feedings, and whose militant tactics kept the issue of suffrage in the public eye while putting irresistible pressure on political leaders such as President Wilson said:

August 26th will be remembered as one of the great days in the history of the women of the world and in the history of this republic. All women must feel a great sense of triumph and of unmeasurable relief at the successful conclusion of a long and exhausting struggle. The suffrage amendment is now safe beyond all reasonable expectation of legal attack. This opinion was secured from high legal authorities by officers of the National Woman’s Party who devoted their efforts after the signing of the ratification proclamation to discover what further steps, if any, would be necessary to protect the amendment. Pending injunction cases were automatically throw out of court by the signing of the proclamation according to the consensus of legal opinion.

Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association since 1915, met with President Wilson at the White House soon after the proclamation was signed. She presented him with a bound volume entitled “A Tribute to Woodrow Wilson.” It was a memorial of appreciation from the national officers and State chapters of N.A.W.S.A. for his efforts in favor of suffrage.

President Wilson was originally a supporter of woman suffrage only on a State-by-State basis. When he met with a delegation of suffragists on January 9, 1917, his refusal to endorse the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, and the alleged reasons for his refusal, caused Alice Paul and other members of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (later the National Woman’s Party) to begin posting “Silent Sentinel” pickets along the White House fence to prod Wilson into first endorsing nationwide woman suffrage, then helping to lobby the Anthony Amendment through Congress.

Exactly one year later, on January 9, 1918, Wilson came out strongly for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment the day before a key vote in the House of Representatives, in which it got exactly the 2/3 majority it needed. Amid continual pressure on him by the National Woman’s Party as well as other suffrage groups, he became a stronger and stronger advocate of suffrage. Among his later actions were personally appearing before the Senate the night before a vote, asking the Senators to pass the Anthony Amendment as a “War Measure,” followed by numerous telegrams to State legislators asking them to vote to ratify the amendment after it passed Congress and was sent to the States on June 4, 1919.

N.A.W.S.A. officially kicked off the nationwide victory celebrations this evening at Poli’s Theater, in Washington, D.C. Secretary Colby came and brought not just his own best wishes, but those of President Wilson as well. Carrie Chapman Catt recounted the challenge of getting that final State ratification in Tennessee, and noted the powerful array of forces that had been brought together to stop approval there. But suffragists had been able to overcome the remnants of the old “whiskey ring,” still hoping for Prohibition repeal, the steel corporations, the railroad lobby, and the Manufacturers’ Association of Tennessee. But even though they used overtly racist pleas, as well as “States’ rights” arguments, opponents still came up a vote short when the final roll was called in Nashville.

Exhilarating as today’s victory may be, the task set forth at Seneca Falls has by no means been completed with the fulfillment of just one resolution. As noted in the closing paragraphs of their “Declaration of Sentiments,” those pioneers saw suffrage as merely a means to attain their goal of total equality:

Now, in view of this entire disenfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation — in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.

In entering upon this great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object. We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and National Legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press in our behalf. We hope this convention will be followed by a series of conventions, embracing every part of the country. Firmly relying upon the final triumph of the Right and True, we do this day affix our signatures to this declaration.

That struggle for absolute equality – using the same means as were outlined in 1848 – must continue with the same energy, enthusiasm and persistence that brought about today’s win.

Hard as it may be for those who have spent decades in the struggle to imagine, “Votes for Women” will inevitably be taken for granted by those who were born after this last battle was fought. But while it’s comforting to think that there will come a time when no one in this country will be able to imagine being barred from the polls solely on account of being a woman, suffragists and the work that was done to bring about that result must never be take for granted. So, it seems only appropriate to suggest that on August 26th of each year, this crucial step toward equality be celebrated, and there be rededication to the goal of those pioneers of 1848 to eliminate every vestige of sex discrimination that may still exist.

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David Dismore

David became a lifelong admirer of the suffragists after briefly encountering them in a high school textbook in the early 1960s. Though missing out on that first part of the struggle for equality, he became active in "second wave" feminism through LA NOW in 1974 and has been a full-time feminist, TV news archivist, and women's history researcher at the Feminist Majority Foundation since its creation.