August 4, 1920: Harding Will Not Take Action on Suffrage Within His Party

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.


The already uncertain chances of Tennessee ratifying the Susan B. Anthony (nationwide woman suffrage) Amendment decreased today as Republican Presidential nominee Warren G. Harding said he was not presently willing to get involved in pressuring his fellow party members there to vote “yes.”

With only five days left until the Tennessee Legislature is expected to be called into special session, and Republican support fading, it had been hoped that Harding, like Democratic Presidential nominee James Cox, would take an active part in the suffrage campaign, and as his party’s Presidential nominee would help assure solid G.O.P. support in Tennessee.

10475318_10202925340558068_3524800252996631044_nMillions of women are already eligible to vote for all offices in 15 equal-suffrage States (plus the Territory of Alaska), and can vote for President in 12 more States, so their support has become critical to any Presidential candidate. Despite Republicans having cast 65.5% of the favorable votes the Anthony Amendment received when it was passed by Congress, and being in complete control of 26 of the 35 State legislatures that have ratified it so far, Republican party officials and organizations are starting to worry. Any apparent lack of support for woman suffrage at this late date might cause all those voting women to blame Republicans for the failure of the Anthony Amendment to be approved in time to enfranchise their voteless sisters in the rest of the States for the November 2nd election.

Recently the Harding-Coolidge League of the District of Columbia sent a telegram to Senator Harding asking him to use his influence in Tennessee, and today got this response: “You can understand why I cannot consistently urge Tennessee legislators to vote for ratification without knowing their reasons for such commitment as they have made. The situation is being reported to national headquarters, where it will be given attention at once.”

But though Harding is passing the buck to the Republican National Committee, and doing nothing for suffrage, there will still be two party nominees working hard for the cause. In addition to Democratic nominee Cox, there will be Parley Christensen, Presidential nominee of the newly-created Farmer-Labor Party. He sent a wire to the National Woman’s Party today offering his services as he prepares for a Statewide speaking tour in Tennessee addressing farm and labor organizations.

In 1916 both Republicans and Democrats endorsed woman suffrage, but only if won on a State-by-State basis. This year – after the Anthony Amendment had been passed by Congress and gotten 35 of the 36 State ratifications needed – both parties finally found the courage to endorse it at their national conventions, and asked governors to call special sessions of their legislatures so that the proposed 19th Amendment could be part of the Constitution before the General Election in November.

The latest analysis of votes in the Tennessee Legislature shows that though Republicans are a minority in both houses, their support will still be critical in what everyone agrees will be an extremely close contest. Of the 7 Republicans in the 33-member Senate, 4 are pledged for suffrage, one is uncommitted, one is opposed, and the stance of the other is unknown. The 99-member Tennessee House has 28 Republican members, of whom 11 are pledged to vote “yes,” 5 are uncommitted, 2 are opposed, and 10 have not replied to inquiries. Adding to the uncertainty is a special election tomorrow to fill 3 vacant seats in the Senate and 10 in the House.

The fragility of a pledge can be illustrated by what’s been happening in regard to one given by Republican House Member Finney G. Carter, representing the 61st District. On July 9th he sent the following telegram to the National Woman’s Party: “I will vote in favor of ratifying the amendment to the United States Constitution extending the right of suffrage to women when it comes before the legislature of my State.” But on July 31st, Anita Pollitzer told Alice Paul in a telegram: “Carter says he is undecided because of constitutional questions.”

The Tennessee Constitution requires a Statewide election to occur between the time a Federal amendment is submitted to the States and its approval by the Tennessee Legislature. Since the Anthony Amendment was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, this would seem to block a vote until after the November 2, 1920 election. But a Supreme Court decision in June regarding the 18th Amendment (Hawke v. Smith, 253 U.S. 221) appears to invalidate all restrictions on a State legislature’s ability to approve a Federal amendment at any time. Some Tennessee legislators who don’t want to come right out and say they’re opposed to woman suffrage have been using this clause as an excuse for saying they’ll vote “no.”

So, there’s a mix of excitement, uncertainty and concern in Tennessee today. But for better or worse, the time when every member of the legislature will have to take a definite stand on woman suffrage by casting a vote is coming very soon.

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