August 25, 1920: Suffragists Await Final Step to Voting Rights as Opponents Continue to Challenge 19th Amendment

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.


As Alice Paul and other National Woman’s Party stalwarts hold one last vigil tonight, the final victory for woman suffrage appears to be at hand.

Despite the dogged determination of opponents to fight to the bitter end, the last obstacle to Secretary of State Colby proclaiming that the Susan B. Anthony Amendment was properly ratified and is now the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been brushed aside. All that remains now is for Tennessee’s certificate of ratification to arrive here in Washington, D.C., and be delivered to Secretary Colby.

He has said that even if the certificate arrives as late as midnight or a little after, he will immediately go to the State Department and formally proclaim that the U.S. Constitution now says that: “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.”

 Tennessee's certificate of ratification, now on a train from Nashville to Washington, D.C.
Tennessee’s certificate of ratification, now on a train from Nashville to Washington, D.C.

Today began like so many before it, battling anti-suffragists. Having failed to prevent the Anthony Amendment from getting the approval of 2/3 of both Houses of Congress and 3/4 of the State legislatures, opponents tried to use the local courts to prevent the Governor from certifying Tennessee’s ratification as the 36th and final State needed. When that desperate move also proved unsuccessful, anti-suffragists turned their attention from Nashville to the nation’s capital. Their last-ditch plan was an attempt to get the District of Columbia Supreme Court to issue an order restraining Secretary of State Colby from signing the ratification proclamation until all legal issues – no matter how groundless they were – could be fully resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The plaintiff was Charles S. Fairchild, acting on behalf of the American Constitutional League. The case was argued by attorney Alfred D. Smith. Justice Frederick L. Siddons first raised the question of whether he even had the authority to issue such an order, and asked Smith to go find references and citations to show that he could do so. Smith returned to court a few hours later with the requested documentation, but the judge still refused Smith’s request to summon the Secretary of State to show cause why he should not be restrained from signing the proclamation, or to issue an order forbidding him from signing.

“I hold that the act of promulgating the ratification of the suffrage amendment is purely a ministerial act,” he said. “I am averse to issuing a rule ordering the Secretary of State to show cause why he should not be enjoined on the grounds presented here.”

The judge also seemed rather surprised to see that the “antis” were not just attacking Tennessee’s ratification, which was at one time a subject of controversy, but all 36 ratifications: “Do you attack the validity of every legislative act of the States with reference to ratification?”

Smith replied, “We do on the grounds, first that Congress had no right to propose such an amendment, and secondly, because the acts of ratification were in some instances invalid because the legislatures which voted favorably were elected before Congress proposed suffrage ratification.”

A number of Southern States – Tennessee being the only one that actually ratified – have a rule that a Statewide election must take place between the time that a Constitutional amendment is passed by Congress and the State legislature can vote on ratifying it. But in June, the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling in regard to Ohio’s ratification of the 18th Amendment (Hawke v. Smith, 253 U.S. 221), which has been interpreted by virtually all legal authorities and scholars as invalidating all restrictions on any State legislature’s right to ratify a Constitutional amendment.

Though Justice Siddons didn’t buy any of Smith’s arguments, he did grant him one favor. Rather than putting things on hold while he took his time to consider a ruling, the judge immediately dismissed the application so Smith could take it directly to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Though it’s possible the D.C. Court of Appeals might first agree that it has the authority to temporarily restrain Secretary Colby from signing the proclamation, and then choose to do so, it’s very unlikely it could act before Colby has signed the document. The opposition is indicating that if they fail to get such a ruling, or if it comes too late, their final strategy will be to continue challenging the legality of the ratification process. Their new goal would be to get the U.S. Supreme Court to rule before the November elections that at least one State’s ratification of the 19th Amendment was invalid. If that occurred, and another State hadn’t ratified by then, things would stay the same as they are now on Election Day, with women having full voting rights in 15 States plus the Territory of Alaska, the right to vote for some offices or in some elections in 26, and no voting rights at all in 7.

Suffragist leaders are quite confident that unless the train from Nashville is extremely late, they’ll win tomorrow’s race, and that Tennessee’s certification will be delivered to Secretary Colby before the D.C. Court of Appeals can even convene.

National Woman’s Party members are keeping a close watch on all developments. In a move reminiscent of their “Silent Sentinels,” who picketed outside the White House gates to put pressure on the Wilson Administration to help get the Anthony Amendment through Congress, party members are stationing themselves around the State Department tonight waiting for the final act in this drama. The building will be kept open, because some State Department employees have been ordered to stay there to receive and sign for the registered letter containing the certificate from Tennessee. The latest estimate from postal officials is that the document will arrive sometime between 12:30 and 2:30 a.m.

No matter at what hour Colby’s proclamation is made, it will be a time of triumph and celebration for all suffragists. But by no means will there be only a single commemoration. There are plans for a variety of observances from coast to coast over the next few days. Then it will be time for each individual suffragist and every suffrage organization to decide what to do now that the goal of “Votes for Women” has at long last been achieved.

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