Founding Feminists: October 1, 1918

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.


The speeches by pro-suffrage Senators today were as eloquent and impassioned as they had been during yesterday’s debate. President Wilson’s commitment to the cause was undiminished, as he followed up yesterday’s speech to the Senate with personal letters to his fellow Democrats urging them in the strongest possible terms to vote for the Susan B. Anthony (nationwide woman suffrage) Amendment today. Unfortunately, the number of Senators pledged to oppose suffrage was also unchanged from yesterday, and the amendment failed to pass by the 2/3 majority required.

Right up until the time the voting ended, Senator Andrieus Jones, Democrat of New Mexico, the amendment’s chief sponsor, had hoped for some last-minute conversions. But when the roll was called, the tally stood at 54 to 30, two short of the 56-28 (two-thirds majority) of the 84 Senators present and voting that would have meant success.

Even if all 96 Senators had been present, suffrage would still have come up two votes short due to 34 being pledged to vote “no.” The vote would have been 62-34, with 64-32 being required for passage. At the last moment Senator Jones switched his vote to the “no” column so that he would be allowed to call the amendment up for another vote if there was a more favorable outlook. This made the official vote count 53-31, technically three short of victory, but with the measure still alive.

The original count was 27 Democrats in favor and 20 opposed (57% support), and 27 Republicans in favor and 10 opposed (73% support). Not one anti-suffrage Democrat heeded the President’s call to pass the Anthony Amendment as a “War Measure.” Even Majority Leader Thomas Staples Martin of Virginia, and others who have been prominent and vigorous supporters of the President’s other policies, deserted him today.

The reason for such strong opposition by Southern Democrats is well known, and was vividly illustrated by a proposal from Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi. He moved that the Anthony Amendment be changed so that it would authorize only white women to vote. The motion was overwhelmingly rejected by being tabled 61-22. That 22 of the 30 votes cast against suffrage were by militant segregationists certainly tells us something about one segment of the opposition. Suffrage groups and their Senate supporters should be commended for steadfastly retaining the original 1878 race-neutral wording of the Anthony Amendment, and refusing to give in to Southern Democrats’ demands that they abandon some women to enfranchise others.

Today’s debate began with an accurate prediction by Senator Albert Baird Cummins, Republican of Iowa: “I fear that a little group of willful men are intent on bringing about the defeat of this amendment.” This was followed by a discussion of whether woman suffrage was truly a “War Measure.” President Wilson insisted yesterday that it was, because we are in a war for democracy, and there could be no better way for our nation to show its commitment to that cause than by enfranchising the female half of its own citizens.

National Woman's Party pickets protesting the 34 Senators who are currently blocking equal suffrage for millions of women in non-suffrage States.
National Woman’s Party pickets protesting the 34 Senators who are currently blocking equal suffrage for millions of women in non-suffrage States.

But other than the “War Measure” issue, the debate covered nothing new, and changed no minds. Senator Knute Nelson, Republican of Minnesota, noted that “this is not the first time the voice of the prophet has not been heard in the wilderness.” Senator Cummins followed up with “No, and I want to know how Senators who vote against this amendment are going to escape the consequences of it.”

Opponents were quick to praise the 34 Senators pledged to vote against the amendment, as they celebrated today’s defeat. According to Mrs. James W. Wadsworth, President of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage:

Our faith in the wisdom and integrity of the United States Senate is justified. We have held all along that if there was no desertion of fundamental principles we could not lose. There has been no desertion. In the face of a powerful lobby, false labels, political threats and pressure, thirty-four men in the United States Senate retained their sanity, stood by their convictions, upheld the principle of local self-government ‘to the last quarter of an hour.’ Millions of American women who admire courage and cherish convictions thank these Senators and are proud to be represented by such manhood. The legislative branch of the Government has retained its independence. The principle of self-determination, the Constitutional right of each State to settle the question for itself by popular vote, has triumphed over every consideration of political ‘policy.’

But many others think differently. William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic nominee for President, was asked if he thought the Senate had disposed of the suffrage issue. He replied:

By no means. The President presented a powerful appeal and it will continue to bring pressure to bear upon the opponents of suffrage through the responses the people will make to the President’s appeal. I expect to see the suffrage amendment submitted to the States before March 1 next … It must be remembered that the liquor interests have been the backbone of the opposition to suffrage in the North and that this influence will disappear with the ratification of the Prohibition Amendment … Taking these two influences together, I think there will be more than enough changes to give the necessary two-thirds.

The liquor industry has been the earliest, strongest, and richest foe of suffrage. Brewers and saloonkeepers fear that because women have been so prominent in the Temperance movement, women voters would quickly outlaw liquor. But even without nationwide woman suffrage, the present Congress (all male except for Rep. Jeannette Rankin, Republican of Montana) passed the Prohibition Amendment on December 18, 1917. It has been ratified by 14 States so far, and is expected to pick up the other 22 States it needs when legislatures around the country meet for their regular sessions in January. Once the liquor industry is defunded, and the prohibition issue finally disposed of, this will certainly help clear the road for suffrage.

Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party are as confident as Bryan of eventual victory. “This defeat is only temporary,” Paul said. “The vote of the Senate, we are convinced, will be reversed before this session of Congress ends. Our efforts to secure the reversal will begin at once and will continue until our victory in the House is confirmed by the Senate.”

Senator Jones says he intends to reintroduce the suffrage resolution at the “first opportunity” and will call for a vote the moment he’s sure there are 2/3 in support. Though victory in Congress proved elusive today, there is still time left for victory in this session. Even if two votes cannot be switched in the present Senate, the midterm elections in November could produce a two-vote gain for suffrage forces, and suffragists of all factions are now going to do their best to bring about that change. So, despite today’s discouraging vote, it’s still only a question of whether the Susan B. Anthony Amendment is approved and sent to the States for ratification by this Congress or the next one.

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