August 26th is Women’s Equality Day, which celebrates the day the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in federal elections became part of the US Constitution. The final scene was an appropriately dramatic conclusion to American women’s long struggle to vote.
The House of Representative had approved the amendment in January of 1918. The Senate finally approved it in June of 1919. The amendment needed approval of 36 states to be ratified, and so the campaign for ratification began. Suffragists and their supporters, led by National American Women’s Suffragist Association leader Carrie Chapman Catt, wanted it approved so that women could vote in the 1920 presidential elections.
Things moved pretty quickly at first, with 22 states approving by the end of 1919. By February of 1920, the 33rd state, Oklahoma, agreed. In West Virginia, an absentee member raced across the state to help pass it there in March, bringing the total to 34. Washington became the 35th. Delaware was in line to be the 36th, but after 10 weeks of debate, the measure was defeated.
By June of 1920, 35 states had approved, 8 had defeated it. Five 5 states remained – Florida, North Carolina, Vermont, Connecticut and Tennessee. Which one should they go after? Finally, the governor of Tennessee, a Democrat, strongly encouraged by President Wilson to reconsider, agreed to call a special session of the legislature. On August 9, the final battle for suffrage began.
Suffragists and anti-suffragists descended on Tennessee, each conducting the most aggressive assault they could muster. Catt predicted it would be a furious battle. Never had the forces of anti suffrage been so vicious, so vulgar. Correspondences were stolen, phones were tapped, lobbyists representing liquor and railroads made sure representative were distracted with drunken revelry. Critical supporters changed their minds and went to the opposition. Anti suffragists passed out literature calling suffrage unpatriotic and arguing that the national suffrage amendment violated states rights.
On August 18, the hour had come. Opponents were sure they had enough votes to block ratification. With 96 legislators present, the first vote was 48-48. A second vote was called for.
Again, a motion to ratify. The voice vote began. Suffragists and anti-suffragists held their breaths. In the stifling heat of the crowded House chamber, only a soft flutter of crumpled flyers hastily folded into make shift fans stirred the air between the “Yea”s and the “Nay”s of the vote. No one counted on a miracle. The youngest member of the legislature, Harry Burn, had promised his mother that he would vote for the amendment if his vote was absolutely needed. When the time came, Burn honored his promise and the motion passed, 49 – 47.
Historian Sara Graham wrote,” Suffragists in the gallery sat in stunned silence. The needed vote had miraculously appeared, the tie had been broken. Seconds later, deafening applause rained down on the young legislator as the Speaker called in vain for order.” Opponents tried to overturn the decision, but it held.
On August 24, the governor signed the resolution, and off it went to Washington, DC. On the morning of August 26, 1920, U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the proclamation that the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, had become the law of the land.
26 million American women were now citizens. At a triumphant celebration in New York, Catt told women, “Let us remember we are no longer petitioners. We are not wards of the nation, but free and equal citizens. Let us practice the dignity of a sovereign people. We have proved that this is a government of the people, not an empire of corporations. Let us do our part to keep it a true democracy.”
Have women done their part to keep America a true democracy? Would the “soldiers in the great suffrage army” be proud of how women have contributed to the nation? The goals of that first wave of feminists was to bring a woman’s perspective to the activities of the government through voicing that perspective with the vote. Have women done that? The right to vote was their legacy – what is ours?