August 18, 1920: Suffrage Is, At Last, The Law of the Land!

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.FoundingFeministLogo-color

The day of victory has arrived! After 72 years of effort, “Votes for Women” is no longer a slogan, or a distant goal, but will be a Constitutionally guaranteed right, with only purely ceremonial events remaining to be done.

The long struggle that began with a woman suffrage resolution passed in Seneca Falls, New York, on July 20, 1848, by those attending the second day of the first women’s rights convention, ended in Nashville this afternoon when the Tennessee House approved – by a single vote – ratification of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. The “Volunteer State” has now become the 36th and final one needed to enshrine these words in the U.S. Constitution:

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.” A second section says: “Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The final day of the battle was much like the 26,326 that led to it, with hard work done, heavy opposition encountered, and hopes rising and falling repeatedly. The anti-suffrage Speaker of the House controlled the action, and an hour into today’s debate, Rep. Seth Walker left the Speaker’s chair and took the floor to protest the implication that “special interests” were behind the opposition to suffrage and would be responsible for its imminent defeat:

The battle has been won, and the measure has been defeated. I resent the iniquitous remarks that special interests are here alone against this measure. I resent this on behalf of the womanhood that is both for and against suffrage. I move that this measure go where it belongs, to the table.

National Woman’s Party members thanking legislators outside the State Capitol today after the vote. Harry Burn is in the dark suit just right of center, in the background, shaking hands with Anita Pollitzer. On the far left is Banks Turner, shaking hands with Catherine Flanagan. In front are Thomas Simpson, Betty Gram and Sue White.

All over the chamber, “antis” gleefully shouted “Second the motion!” and Representative Overton, chosen by Walker to preside over the House so Walker could work the floor, immediately ordered the roll called. After several agonizing minutes, in which predictions of how a member would vote finally encountered reality, the result was a 48-48 tie, with 3 members absent. The “antis” demanded a second roll call, hoping to change one vote, table the measure, and end all action on suffrage until next year. Overton quickly obliged, but no votes were changed. The “motion to table” was then declared lost for want of a majority.

Since a 48-48 tie on the ratification resolution itself would be insufficient for passage, the “antis” demanded, and of course got, an immediate vote. Suffragists in the galleries awaited the inevitable result stoically, disappointed once again, but already beginning to plan the 1921 campaign for that 36th State.

Then something totally unexpected happened. Representative Harry Burn, the youngest member of the House, who had been wearing a red anti-suffrage rose, voted “Aye” on ratification even though he had just voted to table the measure twice. Did he misspeak, and might he correct himself at the end of the roll call, or were there actually 49 votes for ratification now? After a moment of stunned silence, there was an outburst of cheers from the galleries, as hopes rose once again. The roll call continued, but just as suffragists were beginning to relax, Representative Turner chose to pass. He had voted against tabling the measure, but if he was having second thoughts, and was about to change his vote from pro-suffrage to anti-suffrage, it was back to a 48-48 tie and failure to ratify.

The “antis” in the galleries and on the floor now had their turn to cheer as they appeared to be back on the road to victory after a brief detour. The roll call proceeded, then at almost the last moment Rep. Turner requested the clerk to record his vote as “Aye.” That meant Harry Burn’s vote was the only one that had changed, and the tally would be 49 to 47 in favor of ratification! (It was noticed by some observers that just before his final vote, Burn was reading and re-reading a letter, rumored to be from his mother, telling him to vote for suffrage. He has promised to discuss his vote tomorrow, so everyone is eager to hear his story.)

Pandemonium broke out even before the clerk officially announced the result. Yellow banners waved in the galleries and suffrage supporters danced and hugged, as a shower of yellow flowers they’d thrown into the air rained down on the House floor.

Barely heard amid the boisterous and lengthy demonstration, Speaker Walker made a move he may later regret. He changed his vote to “Aye” just before the tally was made official by being entered in the House Journal, because only someone who votes for a measure can ask to have it reconsidered, and the “antis” definitely want the ratification resolution reconsidered and defeated. But by making the final vote count 50 to 46, he gave the ratification resolution an absolute majority of those in the 99-member House, and prevented any challenge to it on the basis of lacking such an absolute majority for passage.

Though there will be unprecedented partying tonight at suffrage offices all across the city – and nation – no one will be going back to their home States tomorrow. The House has two days to reconsider the measure, and suffragists will be keeping close watch on all legislators to make sure there are no defections that might cause ratification to be rescinded, though the legality of rescission is highly questionable, and has never been recognized by Congress.

At least two of the three legislators who were absent today are thought to be pro-suffrage, but they’ll all be heavily lobbied in case they take their seats tomorrow. There will also be legal challenges to ratification due to a section of the Tennessee Constitution that prohibits the legislature from ratifying a Federal amendment submitted by Congress to the States until after a Statewide election of legislators has taken place. The 19th Amendment was submitted to the States on June 4, 1919, and the first Statewide election after that won’t occur until November 2nd. But a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June appears to have invalidated all restrictions on a State legislature’s right to ratify at any time, which is why the Governor felt free to call this special session to ratify the Anthony Amendment.

If the House majority for suffrage can be maintained for just two more days, all that will remain are two ceremonies. Governor Albert Roberts, who has been a tireless and fearless advocate of suffrage, will need to certify that the ratification resolution was properly passed by both the House and Senate of the Tennessee Legislature. After he signs that document it will go to Washington, D.C., where the Secretary of State will review it and similar documents from 35 other States, then issue a proclamation that the Susan B. Anthony Amendment is now officially the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Secretary Colby said today that he would issue the proclamation as soon as the certification arrives from Tennessee. The Attorney General of the United States said that the amendment is self-enforcing and no new laws are needed to make women eligible to vote in States where they could not vote until now.

At National Woman’s Party headquarters in Washington, D.C., Alice Paul happily added a 36th star to the ratification flag, and gave out a victory statement:

The victory of women today completes the political democracy of America and enfranchises half the people of a great nation. It is a victory which has been won not by an individual or a group, but by all those women who since the time of the Revolution have suffered and protested against the humiliation of disenfranchisement and proclaimed the equality of men and women. All women of the United States are now entitled to vote in the coming elections on the same basis as men.

But our work cannot end. Ratification must be protected in the courts against attacks of its opponents. It must be safeguarded, if possible, by the winning of a thirty-seventh State. In certain States, also, provision must be made for admitting women to the polls and providing for their registration in accordance with the law. The Woman’s Party will at once get in touch with the Attorney General of each State with the object of aiding in this matter, which we anticipate will cause no difficulty or delay.

With their power to vote achieved, women still have before them the task of supplementing political equality with equality in all other fields. In State and national legislation, as well as in other fields, women are not yet on an equal basis with men. The vote will make it infinitely easier for them to end all discriminations, and they will use the vote toward that end. The National Woman’s Party, organized in 1913 to secure passage of the Federal suffrage amendment, has accomplished the purpose for which it was founded. It will meet in convention within the next two months to decide upon its future.

Paul said that she is confident today’s vote will stand:

We do not fear the results of the efforts to reconsider, but we shall, of course, do everything possible to prevent such action. We are informed by our workers in Nashville that the forces opposing suffrage, as soon as the vote was taken, began attacks on our men to induce a sufficient number of them to remain at home for the next two days in order that the reconsideration motion might be passed and the amendment defeated. They are reported to be saying to our men: ‘You have done everything you need to do now to please the suffragists; all you need to do for us is to stay home for two days.’ We are confident that none of the men who voted for us today will agree to such tactics.

The vote in the Tennesse House today showed that we had one more vote than the necessary clear majority of fifty, since two men who failed to vote were strong suffragists. One of them was unable to leave his home because of his own illness, the other was with his wife, who is critically ill. Both of these absent men were Republicans.

In addition to these two men, sixteen Republican members voted for ratification, which means that the Republicans have enlisted on the side of ratification more than a majority of their delegation in the House – a record of which they may well be proud.

The original 49 to 47 vote had 33 Democrats in favor, and 36 opposed, with 16 Republicans in favor – Harry Burn among them – and 11 against.

Paul then concluded her remarks by thanking the Presidential nominees of both parties for their help, as well as Tennessee Governor Albert Roberts who called the special session.

Alice Paul’s militant tactics and self-sacrifice certainly deserve a share of the credit for today’s victory, but so do Carrie Chapman Catt’s more than three decades of effort. Today, Catt, head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1900 to 1904 and since 1915, said:

The gallant men of the Volunteer State, unafraid of the noisy threats meant to intimidate, have opened at long last the long-locked door through which millions of grateful women will pass to political freedom. Ratification of the amendment is more than a victory for woman suffrage. It is proof of the inviolable integrity of the Tennessee Legislature, a fact which should fill every Tennessee heart with pride. In this hour of victory there is but one regret, and that is every man and woman in the nation does not share our joy. Today there are those yet too blinded by prejudice to recognize the justice and inevitability of woman suffrage, but tomorrow we know that we shall work together for the common good of this great and glorious nation.

The National American Woman Suffrage Association will now begin the process of disbanding, its purpose happily fulfilled. But Catt sees plenty of work ahead for veteran suffragists:

The suffrage victory means opportunity for more work and added responsibility. The suffrage triumph is too belated for it to come with any shock of surprise. We have long been ready for it. We are ready for the work that lies ahead of us.

Since ‘votes for women’ is now an accomplished fact, what are women going to do with the vote? Are they going to draw back their skirts in disdain from all interest in politics on the ground that it is corrupt? Are they going to join the army of kid-gloved men slackers whom I have heard proudly boast that they would not touch politics with a 10-foot pole? Or are they going to be of those who will help swell America’s army of voters who put conscience and thought into the scales with party politics and party candidates?

In order to help the new woman voter find her way through the maze of these besetting questions there has been formed the National League of Women Voters. In each State, State branches are forming out of the old suffrage associations. The league is non-partisan, it is pan-partisan, all partisan.

There should also be tribute paid today to literally uncountable numbers of other suffragists going all the way back to those who gathered together in 1848 to launch this battle for the equality of men and women. Even gaining such a basic right as the vote must have seemed almost impossible not just in the beginning, but at other times, such as between the winning of Idaho in 1896 and Washington in 1910, when not a single State was won for suffrage, or 1915 when an all-out campaign in four big Eastern States produced nothing more than stunning defeats.

Though she didn’t live long enough to see today’s victory, Susan B. Anthony knew all along that it wasn’t winning the vote that was impossible, but that for those who believe in equality, “Failure is impossible.” Today she was proven right.

Support eh ERA banner