Founding Feminists: September 24, 1917

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.


Though Representative Joe Walsh, Republican of Massachusetts, called it yielding to “the nagging of iron-jawed angels,” the militant tactics of the National Woman’s Party seem to be paying off. The House voted 181-107 today to finally create a separate Committee on Woman Suffrage. Up until now the Susan B. Anthony (nationwide woman suffrage) Amendment had been just one of many issues to be dealt with by the always overburdened House Judiciary Committee.

The debate today was heated, and less about whether women should vote than about the “Silent Sentinels” who have been taking up their posts along the White House fence each day since January 10th. They are there to point out the hypocrisy of President Wilson vigorously campaigning for democracy around the world while not even endorsing – much less using his considerable influence to lobby for – a Constitutional Amendment that would bring democracy to millions of voteless women in his own country. Representative William Stafford, Republican of Wisconsin, called the Sentinels’ peaceful picketing “outlawry,” and Rep. Walsh referred to the pickets as “bewildered, deluded creatures with short skirts and short hair.”

via Library of Congress
via Library of Congress

The fight for creation of the new committee was led by Rep. Edward Pou, Democrat of North Carolina, and Rep. Jeannette Rankin, Republican of Montana. After quoting some State Constitutions to show how hard it would be for women to win suffrage in some States, Rep. Rankin told her fellow House members, “Perhaps it is news to you to know that some women of the United States can never be enfranchised except by Federal amendment. Constitutions of the States are such that it is practically impossible to amend them.”

Rankin used New Mexico as an example. That State requires 3/4 of all the votes cast and a 2/3 majority in every county in order to amend its constitution through a referendum. Representative Pou, who chairs the House Rules Committee, said that President Wilson had written a letter to him in which the President said he was in favor of a Suffrage Committee in the House. A skeptical Rep. Edwin Webb, Democrat of North Carolina, who heads the House Judiciary Committee, challenged Pou to produce the letter, which he did.

Both major parties went on record in 1916 as favoring woman suffrage on a State-by-State basis, and President Wilson is personally in favor of suffrage, but unwilling to lean on his fellow Democrats – who control both House and Senate – to get the Anthony Amendment through Congress. So, pressure on President Wilson to declare passage of the amendment a “War Measure,” and on both parties to endorse nationwide suffrage, as well as on individual members of Congress to vote in favor of the Anthony Amendment will continue.

Today it was “business as usual” for the “Silent Sentinels,” and as their tactics were being debated in the House, four more pickets were arrested.

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