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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

An August Holiday?

La Gaceta comes out on Fridays, and this Friday’s edition will be on August 26. Ring a bell for you? It should. Let’s ring bells and raise a toast to August 26, the anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution that granted full voting rights to women in every state. This was in 1920, and some women’s organizations already are gearing up for the 100th coming soon. I hope to be at the White House, where I’m sure the first female president will be.

Many of us also have talked about August 26 being a national holiday. There are none for women, you know. There’s Presidents Day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day, and Veterans Day, all generally for guys. (No, Mothers Day doesn’t count: Fathers Day actually began earlier, and although Mother’s Day is now the biggest day of the year for the floral industry, it was created as a balancing act for Dads. Besides, both are on Sundays and are not national holidays.)

A major reason why there’s not been a push for a holiday for the women’s rights movement is that we feminists can’t decide ourselves when it should be. Some reject August 26 because most schools are not in session, and holidays are major learning opportunities for kids. The same reasoning applies to July 19, which is the anniversary of the first call for the right to vote, in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Other holiday suggestions include Susan B. Anthony’s birthday -- but it is inconveniently on February 15, too close to President’s Day and to its forerunners, Lincoln’s birthday on the 12th and Washington’s on the 22nd.

Anthony’s protégé, the Rev. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, was born on February 14, but although Valentine’s Day was not as big then as now, even back then it wouldn’t do as a holiday. Feminists, however, did use both her birthday and that of Anthony as fundraising tools during their regular annual meetings in February. Yes, Susan B. was not beyond the egocentrism of insisting that national conventions be held in Washington in February partly because she wanted her birthday as a fundraiser. She strongly resisted summer conventions, which would have meant easier travel, ostensibly because Congress recessed in August. What was wrong with May or June was never explained. Although a Quaker in her youth, modesty was not her strong suit.

Anyway, the upshot is that we women haven’t settled on a holiday in the way that the black civil rights movement did with Martin Luther King’s birthday. I want to suggest October 23, when the first national women’s rights convention was held in 1850. Or maybe, if schools around the nation emulate the Southern strategy of beginning in August, the 26th will do. I don’t think that’s likely, though, as the vacation industry wants summer to extend through Labor Day. If I lived Up North, I would, too. And so we procrastinate on this. At least we soon will have the first women on money.

The Long Struggle

I’m going to cut to the chase on August 26, quickly summarizing the years between the first call for the vote in 1848 and its achievement in 1920. Largely because men wanted women to move there, women in the Wyoming Territory got the vote in 1869. The Utah Territory followed just weeks later, early in 1870, but Congress later repealed it as a condition of statehood. Women in Washington State suffered a similar fate, when their court struck a victory they won in 1883; they did not regain the vote until 1910. Rights proved permanent for Colorado women in 1893, as well as Idaho in 1896.

Then there was a long lull under the poor political leadership of the Rev. Dr. Shaw. Although she was a great orator with degrees in both medicine and theology, she was very much a Bostonian who alienated men with her prohibitionist views. Western women were smarter, and after they essentially barred the door against national “leaders,” they conducted a series of winning campaigns: California in 1911; Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon in 1912; the Alaska Territory in 1913; and in 1914, Montana and Nevada. By the time that New York became the first eastern state in 1917, every western state except New Mexico had granted full voting rights.

I’m omitting the huge complications of partial rights – some women in some elections in some states sometimes. It was all very whimsical, except that legislators ensured women had no rights in their races. I’m also omitting Alice Paul and other radicals with little real political influence; because of their dramatic style, they already get much too much credit from Hollywood historians. After disastrous losses in the 1914 congressional elections – partly caused by Paul and friends, who stupidly opposed all Democrats, even those who supported the amendment, because the president was a Democrat -- Iowa’s Carrie Chapman Catt took over the mainstream group. It had two million dues-paying members, a much higher proportion than any similar political organization today.

Although Presidents have no legal role in constitutional amendments, Woodrow Wilson endorsed the 19th Amendment in his 1918 State of the Union speech, and the House passed it the next day – on a razor-thin margin, with absolutely no votes to spare in reaching the constitutionally mandated 2/3 majority. Catt and her chief lobbyist, Maud Wood Park, also kept a careful count on members of the Senate, where just two votes were needed.

Its leader, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, was strongly opposed, and men from eastern states accounted for 28 of the Senate’s 34 nay votes. Catt therefore targeted four races in Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New Jersey for the 1918 Senate elections. She won the necessary two, replacing opponents with supporters in Delaware – and despite Lodge – in Massachusetts. (Note, please, that New Jersey, Alice Paul’s home state, was lost.)

New congressional terms did not begin until March back then, and Lodge deliberately delayed the inevitable vote until June, when most state legislatures have would adjourned. He hoped thereby to create difficulties for Catt to leap the constitutional hurdle of ratification by ¾ of the states. That means two chambers, a House and a Senate, in 36 of the then 48 states –or a total of 72 tallies all across the nation.

Florida was the first to consider it, but I’ll skip that too-lengthy story; let me know if you want to hear it. The first to ratify were Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan, all on the same day, and the ratifications quickly piled up during the rest of 1919. This was another of Catt’s political miracles, as most of these positive votes were made in special sessions of legislatures that had to be called by governors. She had her troops ready to lobby both governors and legislatures, though, and other states approved during regular sessions that began in January of 1920. By March, however, the low-hanging fruit was gone.

Drama at the End

If women were to vote in 1920 -- an important presidential year with no incumbent -- Catt had to find two more states willing to ratify. The governors of Connecticut and Vermont refused to cooperate, and after the Delaware legislature rejected it, she had no choice except to turn to the conservative South. The ratifications in West Virginia and Tennessee are worthy of a movie.

It began quietly enough, with West Virginia’s Democratic governor calling the Republican-dominated legislature into special session. The House ratified by seven votes, but the Senate tied 14-14, which is a loss. A senator who was in California telegraphed that he was on his way to break the tie in favor, and proponents miraculously managed to keep the House from adjourning for almost two weeks. When he reached Chicago on his railroad journey, opponents came up with a new plan to keep the tie. They recruited a former member who had resigned and moved out of state to reclaim his seat. That was too much for another senator; he switched sides, and West Virginia cast a positive vote.

Then it was down to Tennessee. That session began on August 9. Nashville is hot then, and tempers flared as opponents put up what turned out to be their last stand. “From the time the special session was called,” wrote state suffrage president Margaret Ford, “anti-suffragists from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico arrived, “many of them paid workers.” Carrie Chapman Catt wrote:

Never in the history of politics has there been such a nefarious lobby… Strange men sprang up, men we never met before in the battle… We were told, this is the railroad lobby, these are the manufacturers’ lobbyists, this is the remnant of the old whiskey ring. Even tricksters from the U.S. Revenue Service were there operating against us, until the President called them off… They appropriated our telegrams, tapped our telephones, listened outside our windows… They attacked our private and public lives.

Those interests opposed women because they thought – correctly, as it turned out – that women would not vote for the corrupt candidates who were routine in both of the era’s parties. So, when the Tennessee Senate nonetheless ratified, opponents were down to one chamber of one legislature, and they were desperate. They got the House Speaker to arbitrarily adjourn for eight days, but when members returned, they ratified 49-47. Opponents could not accept their loss, however, and at the urging of their lobbyist friends, they deprived the Senate of its quorum by holing up for more than a week in Decatur, Alabama.

Supporters stayed amazingly loyal, and with the Speaker’s allies absent, a daring freshman legislator wrested parliamentary control. The House voted to transmit the ratification to Washington, but opponents went to court for an injunction. The chief justice immediately ruled against them, and the governor – who once had been an opponent, but was so disgusted that he switched -- mailed the certification of ratification on August 24. When US Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby received it on the morning of August 26, he declared the 19th Amendment added to the Constitution.

Carrie Chapman Catt summed it up. Since the 1848 call for the vote, she counted 480 campaigns in state legislatures; 56 statewide referenda to male voters; 47 attempts to add clauses during revisions of state constitutions; 277 campaigns at state party conventions and at 30 national conventions; and 19 biannual campaigns in 19 different Congresses. Literally thousands of times, men cast their votes on whether or not women should vote. Literally millions of women (and men) gave their entire lives to the cause and went to their graves with freedom unwon. No peaceful political change ever has required so much from so many for so long.

And an Apology

I wrote last week that WMNF (88.5 FM) had given up on news and was doing only music. Not so, said News Director Rob Lorei. Although he also has a very good news show on WEDU TV, he remains with WMNF Radio as well – and it has serious, in-depth news from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM weekdays. That includes broadcasts from Pacifica News, whose loss I wrongly lamented.

Pacifica’s flagship show is Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now.” She excels at reporting stories, especially international news, that no one else touches. The ten o’clock slot goes to various programs, including the long-running Women’s Show – a particular mea culpa on that! Rob’s own show, “Radioactivity,” is at 11:00 AM, and the noon news, “Midpoint,” has several local hosts.

So please tune in -- and also join me in calling for the station to return some of this great news content to greater access in drive time. But mostly, except for PBS and C-Span, turn off your TV. It will lower your blood pressure between now and the election.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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