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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.

Happy 100th birthday! The beginning

The media has done a fairly good job of raising awareness that this month is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which ensured the right of American women to vote in all elections.  You may be confused, however, by the exact date, as different ones are being used.  Some reporters are using August 18, but those of us in the field always have used August 26.  The reason for the disparity is not a lazy error, but instead reflects the many complexities of amending the US Constitution. 


I'll get into that later, but the second really important point is that states are in charge of voting, and state laws on women's rights varied tremendously (and still do, as a woman's right to control her body varies with map lines).  The federal government first began to limit this "states' rights" approach with the 15th Amendment.  Adopted in 1870, it was intended to force former Confederate states to allow black men to vote.


The 15th Amendment, however, said only "citizens," not "male citizens," and so women of both races tested it in more than a dozen states.  Women contended that they were citizens who were subject to taxation without representation, but in an 1874 Missouri case, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected their argument. The (of course, all male) justices scarcely looked at the plain language of the amendment; instead, they quoted the Bible more than the Constitution.  Young lawyers today should read that decision to have their eyes opened on the past versus the present. 


Beyond that, many jurisdiction allowed some women to vote in some elections, but not others.  The clearest example is frontier Kentucky, in which women who were property-owning widows and had no children in school could vote in school board races.  Municipal election rights became quite common after 1887, when Kansas adopted that form of "partial suffrage."  Civic and business leaders there and in other states wanted women to vote in town elections because they believed women would outlaw alcohol sales.  That is a local decision, and some municipalities wanted to rid themselves of crime-promoting saloons. 


Another form of partial suffrage was presidential.  Beginning with Illinois in 1913, some states allowed women to vote in that race, knowing that the Electoral College would make the ultimate decision.  Partial rights meant separate ballot boxes for women, as their ballots were much shorter than those for men – and never included powerful offices such as sheriff, governor, or Congress.




Yet even before the Supreme Court rabidly rejected female voters, some had full rights.  The first was the Wyoming Territory in December 1869.  Frontier men were so eager to lure women to the West that this was the first bill introduced in the new legislature.  The Utah Territory followed with full voting rights a few weeks later, but Congress later vetoed that because some Utah women were Mormons and polygamous.  The Washington Territory was third in 1883, but four years later, its state courts struck down the right on a technicality.


Colorado joined the trend in 1893, and in the very next election, Denver voters sent three women to the state House.  Utah women regained their right with statehood in 1895, and Salt Lake City immediately elected the first female state senator.  Idaho followed in 1896, and then there was a long lull (for reasons I'll skip) before California women won the vote in a sophisticated, expensive 1911 campaign. 


The 1912 election was very exciting, with three presidential candidates and three more states added to the equal rights column:  Arizona, Kansas, and – after five losing statewide referenda – Oregon. The Alaska Territory in 1913 was akin to the Wyoming Territory in 1869:  The very first bill was to fully enfranchise women.  Montana and Nevada followed in 1914 -- and Montana would elect the first congresswoman in 1916, four years prior to the 19th Amendment.  By 1917, when New York became the first eastern state, women in every western state except New Mexico had full rights.


These winning campaigns were managed either by the women of that state and/or by Carrie Chapman Catt of Iowa.  Yet these winning women rarely are featured in the images that prevail in our modern media.  I suppose that is because it is difficult to depict one-on-one political work, and so TV producers instead feature the chic and sexy.  We're seeing a lot of Inez Milholland, for instance, but she and her white horse had almost nothing to do with ultimate victory.  She became a hero when she collapsed and died after a 1916 speech – in California, where women already had the vote.  


Similarly, Alice Paul, whose beautiful face graces much of today's publicity, didn't even try to win campaigns in her native New Jersey or Massachusetts or other states that now are considered liberal, but then were conservative.  Educated in England, she used its parliamentary model to campaign against President Woodrow Wilson – even though the US Constitution gives presidents no role whatever in constitutional amendments.  Because Wilson was a Democrat, she led her troops in campaigning against Democrats, and in the 1914 midterms, they went to western states where women were enfranchised -- and succeeded in defeating 20 Democratic congressmen who supported women's right to vote.


So, in the opinion of yours truly, who has been studying this history for decades, instead of Alice Paul's "Iron-Jawed Angels," it was the elderly, twice-widowed Carrie Chapman Catt whose astute strategies won the 19th Amendment.  It was her two-million member mainstream organization that did the grass-roots work of persuading literally tens of thousands of male officials to vote for the 19th Amendment and women's right to vote in any state and any election. 




The Founding Fathers intended for it to be very hard to change the document they wrote:  An amendment to the US Constitution requires two-thirds of both houses of Congress, as well as ratification by ¾ of the state legislatures, both chambers in each.  It's nearly an insurmountable task, and that is exactly what the patriarchal founders wanted. They had a "father knows best" attitude and understood that by the time an issue gains this high degree of unanimity, it's very nearly passé.


Thus, for a long time, there were no constitutional amendments. The first ten were the Bill of Rights; the 11th and 12th cleared up drafting mistakes from the 1700s; and there were no more until after the Civil War ended in 1865.  Then the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were adopted in rapid succession, with Southern states forced to ratify to rejoin the Union. 


Women intended their "Susan B. Anthony Amendment" to be the 16th, but the conservatism of the Gilded Age meant no federal officials were interested in women's rights.  Progress was limited to western states, and never in the 19th Century did Washington seriously consider the issue.  The House never cast a full vote on women's right to vote; the Senate did so once, in 1887.  Only 16 of 65 senators voted affirmatively.


The early 20th Century brought the rise of the Progressive Party, and largely male voters approved the 16th Amendment (income tax), the 17th (direct election of US senators), and the 18th (Prohibition.)  With the emotional alcohol problem thus eliminated from the debate, and with women making visible contributions to World War I, the path to passage eased.  House Speaker Champ Clark, a Missouri Democrat, was helpful; Senate President Henry Cabot Lodge, a Massachusetts Republican, was not. 


The 1918 Senate vote was 62-34, just two votes short of the necessary two-thirds.  Catt targeted four senators in the midterm elections, winning two.  That was enough, but new Congresses did not meet until March back then, and Lodge managed further delays until June 4, 1919.  Most state legislatures adjourned by June, and he hoped to stall the women's momentum.  As it happened, Florida was scheduled to adjourn on June 5, and Governor Sidney Catts made an eloquent appeal for Florida to be the first to ratifying. 


Along with a young Marjory Stoneman Douglas, May Manning Jennings and her sister-in-law, Mrs. William Jennings Bryan, were Florida's leading chief feminists at the time.  Because the legislature regularly had rejected various forms of enfranchisement, they decided that they could not trust the guys in Tallahassee.  These women had enough political experience to understand that it would be disastrous for the national movement if the first state to vote were lost.  They did not ask for a tally, giving up possible personal glory in the interest of others.




That was a Friday, and the following Tuesday, three Midwestern states raced each other to be first to ratify, and others quickly followed.  Most were in special sessions -- which is something of a political miracle in itself, as governors have to call them and legislators have to agree to go, often without reimbursement.  Getting legislators to agree to this required tens of thousands of women to lobby their representatives, but by the spring of 1920, only one more state was needed. 


As with many things, this turned out to be much harder than it looked.  In Delaware, for example, the fight went on from March 22 to June 2, ending in defeat.  Catt then focused on New England states where the women's rights movement had begun, but where conservatism increased with time.  Republican governors in Vermont and Connecticut adamantly refused to call special sessions, and as the summer dragged on, Catt had no choice but to consider the former Confederate states.  Tennessee's Democratic governor responded to a plea from President Wilson and called legislators to Nashville.

On August 12, the Tennessee Senate voted to ratify by an overwhelming 25-4.  After a few more days during which House members presumably collected more favors, the House voted on August 18 – and that's where the date you've seen lately comes in.  You probably also have heard the story of Harry Burns, the young Republican from the mountains of eastern Tennessee who broke the 48-48 tie, saying that he was advised by his mother.


And yet it wasn't over.  At the urging of their lobbyist friends, legislators who had failed to win democratically hid themselves to prevent a quorum.  Skipping out of Nashville in the dark of night, 36 lawmakers holed up in Decatur, Alabama, for more than a week.  The governor, whose support initially had been uncertain, had had enough.  He forced the House Speaker to give him the certificate of ratification and mailed it off to Washington.  When it arrived there on August 26, the secretary of state declared the 19th Amendment to be part of the US Constitution.


There are stories and stories beyond this, and especially the ratification in West Virginia would make an exciting movie.  I hope someone does it.  Meanwhile, you can find many more fascinating details in my "Victory for the Vote:  The Fight for Women's Suffrage and the Century that Followed."  It has an introduction by Nancy Pelosi, and I intend to join Congresswoman Kathy Castor and Mayor Jane Castor in a celebration on August 26.  I hope to see you there – virtually.



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