July 14, 1920: Harding Caves to Suffragist Criticism

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily, news-style herstory column.


Any remaining doubts about the National Woman’s Party’s political clout must certainly have been dispelled today.

Just four days after it issued a press release detailing Senator Warren G. Harding’s “varied, evasive and non-committal” record on the issue of woman suffrage over the years, and after discussing plans to demonstrate outside one of his campaign events next week, the Republican Presidential nominee has suddenly become a fervent advocate of the Susan B. Anthony (nationwide woman suffrage) Amendment.

Today Harding appealed directly to legislators in both Tennessee and North Carolina, where ratification of the proposed 19th Amendment will be voted upon next month, asking them to vote in favor of suffrage when their legislatures are called into special session. Either State could provide the 36th and final ratification needed to fulfill the Constitutional requirement that an amendment be approved by 2/3 of both Houses of Congress, then a 3/4 majority of the 48 States. Harding’s action is quite a change from his previous position of sympathy for the cause, but refusal to overtly lobby for it.

Republican Presidential nominee Senator Warren G. Harding
Republican Presidential nominee Senator Warren G. Harding

Suffrage is certainly a major campaign issue now, with both parties already eager to win the votes of women who live in States where they can presently vote, and party strategists becoming concerned about how women in the other States will vote if the proposed 19th Amendment is ratified before November. Democrats are hoping that a Democratic State (Tennessee or North Carolina) will be the one that puts the Anthony Amendment over the top. Republicans are hoping women voters will take note of the fact that it was a Republican, Senator Aaron Sargent of California, who originally introduced the Anthony Amendment into Congress in 1878, that it was fierce opposition by Southern Democrats which delayed its passage by Congress, and that Republicans control 26 of the 35 State legislatures that have ratified the Anthony Amendment so far. Just six ratified States are controlled by Democrats, and in three, one party controls the House, the other the Senate.

Harding entered the battle today with the following statement:

For myself and the Republican Party I earnestly desire that ratification may be accomplished in time to give the whole body of American women the ballot next November. I am wearied with efforts to make partisan advantage out of the situation. I hope there will be ratification, and I don’t care a fig whether it is secured through a Republican or Democratic State. I will rejoice if North Carolina will do it or if Tennessee will do it, just as I would rejoice if a Republican State did it. There will be glory enough for the Republican Party, no matter whether the thirty-sixth State is Republican or not. If any word of mine could possibly be influential with any Republicans in the North Carolina Legislature, or in the Tennessee Legislature, that word would be: ‘Vote for ratification and don’t worry about who gets the credit for putting it over.’

This isn’t the first time the National Woman’s Party has prodded a powerful politician into action. President Wilson took a “supportive but passive” stance until the N.W.P. (at that time called the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage) began picketing him along the White House fence on January 10, 1917, to point out Wilson’s hypocrisy in vigorously campaigning for democracy around the world while doing nothing to help enfranchise the female half of his own country’s citizens.

Eventually – after hundreds of arrests, jail sentences, and even hunger strikes by some of the prisoners – Wilson became an ardent lobbyist for suffrage. He even went so far as to speak in person before the Senate on September 30, 1918, urging the Anthony Amendment’s approval as a “War Measure,” and has recently been lobbying Democratic State Legislators in Tennessee and North Carolina to approve the proposed 19th Amendment.

Ohio Governor James Cox, the Democratic Presidential nominee, has been a strong and outspoken supporter of suffrage “from the beginning” according to the National Woman’s Party. Alice Paul has just left for Columbus, Ohio, to meet with him on the 16th, and will then go to meet with Senator Harding at his home in Marion, Ohio on the 22nd.

Though the 72-year fight for “Votes for Women” seems to be in its final stage, there will certainly be future battles in the fight for full equality, so the fact that Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party are being formally received and consulted by the next President – whichever candidate that may turn out to be – bodes well for feminism’s post-suffrage era.

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