Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Suffragists' march

With the rekindling of the women's movement as a result of this year's presidential election, historians are reminded of the fact that women's rights have never come easily. A classic example is the Nineteenth Amendment, providing for woman suffrage, which was ratified 64 years ago this month. First introduced in December of 1868, the amendment from its origins witnessed so many setbacks that prudent observers would have given little likelihood of its ratification.

The initial congressional effort died quickly. In 1878 the movement was resuscitated and directed at each session of Congress until 1896, when suffrage leaders, exasperated over congressional tactics, decided to lobby states to change their constitutions. But this path was no more hospitable than the road to Capitol Hill had been. By 1912 half a dozen states provided women with the vote, which meant about a million eligible voters.

About these ads

The movement turned to Washington again, on the grounds that Woodrow Wilson, the first Democratic President since the late 19th century, might be supportive. In 1917, suffrage leaders began to picket the White House and landed in jail, some receiving sentences as long as six months. But early in 1918 the District of Columbia Court of Appeals struck down the convictions. By this time, too, the World War that America had entered the previous April had moved women into new employment. State victories for suffrage began to mount and the movement focused on defeating congressmen who fought it. The gambit seemed to work, with the President capitulating and the House providing in January the precise two-thirds vote needed for passage.

The Senate, more impervious to the threat of reelection obstacles, presented proponents with defeat after defeat in the 18 months after January 1918. But the writing was on the wall, especially as the President became more insistent and the House, in repassing the amendment in May 1919, effected the wide margin of 304 to 89. Within two weeks the upper house grudgingly gave its approval.

Ratification was as unnerving a process for advocates as congressional passage. To be sure, some states responded quickly and with positive votes. But others, with governors either opposed or unwilling to call special sessions because of their increased costs, frustrated consideration. In these instances suffrage advocates had to work to get legislators to serve without pay and even had to assist in the clerical and page work of the sessions.

By March of 1920, West Virginia became the 34th state to ratify, although the margin was a single vote. The state of Washington soon followed. But the prospects for the 36th and final state to bring the amendment into force looked bleak. So close and yet so far.

The border state of Tennessee seemed about the only one where the odds for passage were at least even. All sorts of pressure from Washington, from President to Cabinet members, was put on the governor, who called a special legislative session for August, and suffrage leaders made the trek to Nashville. There they experienced a rite of passage that was unique and nightmarish, according to one leader's account: ''During the evening (before the special session opened) groups of legislators under the escort of strange men had left the foyer and gone to a room on the eighth floor. As the evening grew late, legislators, both suffrage and antisuffrage men, were reeling through the halls in a state of advanced intoxication - a sight no suffragist had before witnessed in the 60 years of the suffrage struggle . ... And every report told the same story - the legislature was drunk!''

Tennessee's Senate reeled to a speedy, positive vote. The situation in the House was a cliffhanger for several days, before the approving vote came. Tennessee had earned a reputation as the reluctant Volunteer State in terms of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Suffrage leaders had little to whoop about. Even the final act - the signing of the ratification papers and transmittal to the US secretary of state - was marred by the antics of anti-amendment forces refusing to give up. It was an awful conclusion, leading one suffrage leader to write: ''... we who have been here will never remember it with anything but a shudder.'

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.