Women's Suffrage: The Crises of 1916

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
by Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler
Woman Suffrage by Federal Amendment
The Fighting Forces

The Crises of 1916

As a presidential election was on its way for the autumn of 1916, early in the year the National Suffrage Association, of which Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt had become president in 1915, began work to get endorsement of the Federal Suffrage Amendment as a plank in the platform of the two dominant parties. The sentiment of the country was such that a declaration favoring the principle of woman suffrage was not only possible but probable in both platforms, yet careful investigation showed suffragists that neither party intended to endorse the Amendment, the South being politically-minded to block an attempt in the Democratic convention, and the East being like-minded in the Republican convention. The danger was that both conventions would definitely refer the question to the States, thus dismissing responsibility for the nation and the national parties, and continuing upon suffragists the burden and delay of securing action by the State route only.

Under the leadership of the National Suffrage Association's Congressional Committee an appropriate plank for each platform was written, endorsing woman suffrage without reference to the method of securing it. These planks were approved by those Republican and Democratic members of Congress who would be the leaders of their respective conventions. All delegates to the two conventions who were elected in sufficient time for such action were memorialized by letter three times, and the presidential candidates were interviewed, but the major emphasis of the campaign was placed on the work of State suffragists with their own people. As one woman said, “It is harder to dodge home folks.“ So in each and every State deputations bearing the proposed suffrage plank waited upon the leaders of political policy and visited delegates. Hundreds of pledges of support were thus secured and every delegate knew the question would come before him, and the form of the plank he would be asked to support. The help of the press was urged and hundreds of newspapers joined the suffragists in their demand. Resolutions of State associations of various kinds were secured and presented to the State delegates. Women delegates were numerous in the conventions, and their special activity was sought. To spectacularize the appeal, a suffrage procession, with floats, banners and costuming, was planned for Chicago where the Republicans and Progressives met on June 14, and a golden lane, or “walkless parade,“ for St. Louis where the Democrats met two weeks later. A public suffrage conference was held in connection with both. In Chicago a memorial to the Republican convention was adopted, to remind the delegates that the women of twelve States were voters, and that the women of six of those had their party affiliations yet to make.

On June 7, for which date the parade of 25,000 women was scheduled, rain descended in torrents and the heavy clouds lifted for no moment during the entire day. Thousands of women pledged to march did not venture forth, but 5,500 did. Those who could secure rubber coats and shoes, did so; those who could not braved the storm without them. The Chicago Herald thus described that Rainy Day parade:

“Over their heads surged a vast sea of umbrellas extending two miles down the street. Under their feet swirled rivulets of water. Wind tore at their clothes and rain drenched their faces. Unhesitatingly they marched in unbroken formation, keeping perfect step. Never before in the history of Chicago, probably of the world, has there been so impressive a demonstration of idealism, of consecration to a cause.“

Along the route the hotel windows were filled with Republican delegates, dry and comfortable. The procession, neither colorful nor picturesque, with music making discord in the noisy downpour of rain, moved on, carrying its message as no fair weather parade could have done. One delegate to the Republican convention came to the suffrage headquarters to say: “I watched it from a window where men stood eight and ten deep and many had tears in their eyes. They said, these women really mean it and we might as well make up our minds to it.“ Young and old, “these women“ really meant it. As a young girl passed in the procession, a man on the curbstone called, “You ought to be home with your mother.“ And she called back, “Mother is here, marching with me.“

The parade's objective was the Republicans' convention hall and as the women reached it there occurred a coincidence priceless in suffrage annals. Inside the hall a session of the Resolutions Committee of the Republicans was the only convention activity in progress. Its members, seated on the great central platform, were giving a hearing to a group of anti-suffrage women, one of whom was just reaching an effective climax of appeal with, “Women do not want the vote.“ As if timed to the instant, through the doors of the hall came the drenched and bedraggled marchers for suffrage. They pushed up to the platform, they massed down below it, they scattered out over the hall, and still they came pouring through the doors. To the everlasting honor of a politician's sense of humor let it be recorded that, as the shock of surprise yielded, several of those on the platform smiled in understanding amusement, as if the incongruity of that outworn charge had at last been comprehended.

Meanwhile, the National Suffrage Association's political committee, aided by strong friends of the Republican convention, with no food or rest, kept watch over the Resolutions Committee and lost no opportunity to stress the suffrage claim. At midnight, the night before the parade, a sub-committee had voted down the suffrage plank and refused consent for any mention of suffrage in the platform by a vote of 5 to 4, Senators Lodge of Massachusetts and Wadsworth of New York leading the opposition. But neither the women nor their men allies gave up. Senators Borah of Idaho and Smoot of Utah led the suffrage forces. In an effort to turn the tide, the Republican women delegates gathered together and a staunch appeal signed by them all and urging a suffrage plank was presented to the Resolutions Committee. After hours of work and debate, by a vote of 26 to 21 the committee repudiated its sub-committee's recommendation to shelve suffrage. Within an hour defeat again threatened, for seven absentees demanded a reconsideration. Marion Butler of North Carolina led the opposition and was supported by Murray Crane and Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania, and James Wadsworth of New York. These men held a special conference in the next room to consider how to prevent any mention of woman suffrage in the platform. Out of the acrimonious discussion, in which North Carolina joined hands with Massachusetts in a determined struggle against a solid West where women were already enfranchised, a compromise emerged. Even this was not achieved until fifteen minutes before the Resolutions Committee was called to report to the convention. The compromise was the price demanded by Senator Lodge of Massachusetts for consent to any kind of suffrage plank. The final vote was 35 to 11 and the plank read:

“The Republican party reaffirming its faith in 'government of the people, by the people and for the people,' as a measure of justice to one-half the adult people of this country favor the extension of the suffrage to women, but recognize the right of each State to settle this question for itself.“

The resolution was the one written and presented by the National Suffrage Association with the State's rights rider added.

The Progressive Party meeting at the same time, with women delegates present from nearly all States, adopted a stronger plank than that of 1912. It read:

“And we believe that the women of the country, who share with the men the burden of government in times of peace and make equal sacrifice in times of war, should be given the full political rights of suffrage both by State and federal action.“

The National suffragists were disappointed at the results obtained, for the Republicans had given the cue to the Democrats, well knowing that Democrats would not allow Republicans to outdo them in loyalty to their revered State's rights ideals.

On June 16 six thousand women, each under a yellow parasol and encircled by a yellow sash, lined both sides of the street from the Jefferson Hotel to the Colosseum in St. Louis, where the Democratic convention was held. This time smiling sunny skies looked down upon them. Half way up, on the steps of the Art Museum, an impressive spectacle was posed. The figure of Liberty in appealing posture stood guard over three groups of figures, each woman representing a State. The enfranchised States were garbed in red, white and blue, the partial suffrage States in gray and those where no suffrage existed in black. All day long delegates trudged back and forth through the “golden lane,“ reading its banners and reminded of its appeal.

Several women were delegates to the Democratic convention and an attempt was made to secure a unanimous petition from them to the Resolutions Committee as had been done in Chicago, but two refused to join in the plea, not because they did not want the plank, but because the Congressional Union's campaign against the Democratic party had made them over-suspicious of all suffragists who were working for suffrage by federal amendment. The usual hearings took place before a sleepy committee which had been sitting all night. The committee would not take the plank written by the National Suffrage Association and accepted by President Wilson. Another one was written in the committee as a substitute and his consent to it was obtained over the long distance telephone. The debate on the suffrage plank was not reached by the committee until three o'clock in the morning but the subject thoroughly aroused drowsy committeemen and their voices, in tart and heated controversy, were heard not only in the corridors of the hotel but by passers-by on the street. Three suffrage planks were brought up for consideration. The plank sponsored by the National Suffrage Association was defeated by 24 to 20. In Chicago at the time of the Republican convention the Congressional Union had called a convention of its own and reorganized itself under the name of the Woman's Party. As such it had presented to the Democratic convention a plank pledging submission of the Federal Suffrage Amendment. That plank was voted down 40 to 4. A motion to make no mention of suffrage was lost by 26 to 17. The substitute plank was finally adopted by 25 to 20. As adopted by the convention, it read:

“We favor the extension of the franchise to the women of the country, State by State, on the same terms as to the men.“

“My God, fix things so there'll be no debate on the floor,“ one excited Republican delegate in Chicago had ejaculated to another, speaking of the suffrage resolution, and apparently things had been fixed, for there was no debate. The Democrats were less fortunate. A minority report signed by four men[1]* was presented and a consequent discussion could not be avoided. By arrangement Governor James Ferguson of Texas presented the report in a speech of thirty minutes, the same length of time being given for the defense of the suffrage plank. Governor Ferguson quoted much scripture in support of the minority report, declaring that women's place was at home, and that they should be performing the function for which God Almighty intended them. Dozens of men attempted to speak but the time limit prevented the outpouring of views that the delegates desired.

Senator Key Pittman, on behalf of the Resolutions Committee, eloquently defended the suffrage plank, but was early interrupted by jeers and howls from the Texas delegation. When order was restored, the young Senator, in tones that cut through the roar of the big convention, cried, “Are you men who cheer every denunciation of women?“ Howls of rage were the response of the Texas delegation. And then something startling happened.

The galleries, filled to overflowing with women, burst forth in cheers and shouts. The women were standing; they were waving flags and handkerchiefs; they were unfurling yellow umbrellas that bobbed up and down all around the long sweep of galleries; they were loosening streams of Golden Lane bunting; they were making the galleries a swirl of gold. “It was the first time,“ recorded the New York Times, “that one of the great cheering demonstrations of a National Convention had been a woman's cheer, the first time a gallery menace to a national convention had been a women's menace, and the thought seemed to flash to the minds of that Texas delegation that it would not be the last. They sank into their seats silenced.“

When Senator Pittman sat down tumult raged. Outside a sudden thunderstorm had burst in fury directly over the building. The thunder boomed, but over-riding the thunder, the galleries with their bobbing parasols cheered and cheered and possessed the convention. A delegate got the floor and demanded to know what obligation to States the proposed plank carried. He was assured by the chairman of the Resolutions Committee, amid wild confusion in which jeers and cheers each contributed a part, that it carried none! And those golden galleries burst forth again-not in cheers, in unmistakable hisses.

Senator Walsh of Montana, to whom a portion of the suffrage time had been assigned, reminded the delegates of the grim truth that women might control the election of ninety-one votes in the Electoral College and that the women voters of eleven States not only had rights but opinions to be considered. Amid tense excitement the roll call by States was ordered on the minority report. And now something else never before seen in a party convention happened. The women with the yellow ribbons produced roll-call forms and began jotting down each vote as it was cast. Said the New York Times: “The sight of them had a most unnerving effect upon the delegates. It was like the French convention of the Revolution, gallery ruled, and the women with the roll-call blanks, noting the way they voted, suggested the knitting women of the Reign of Terror.“ When a voice from Texas announced 38 ayes for the minority report, 8 nays, the encircling galleries broke forth again “in a long steady stream of hisses.“ The minority report was lost by a vote of 888 1/2 to 181 1/2. The victory was won and the women quite clearly had won it. By persisting. By not compromising.

Within the next half hour the executive board of the National Suffrage Association was in session and had sent the following telegram to President Wilson:

“Inasmuch as Governor Ferguson of Texas and Senator Walsh of Montana made diametrically opposite statements in the Democratic convention to-day with regard to your attitude toward the suffrage plank adopted by the convention, we apply to you directly to state your position on the plank and give your precise interpretation of its meaning.“

To this the President replied on June 22:

“I am very glad to make my position about the suffrage plank adopted by the convention clear to you, though I had not thought that it was necessary to state again a position I have repeatedly stated with entire frankness. The plank received my hearty approval before its adoption and I shall support its principle with sincere pleasure. I wish to join with my fellow Democrats in recommending to the several States that they extend the suffrage to women upon the same terms as to men.“

The Board also determined upon two things:

  1. 1. To ask and so far as in us lies to insist upon a vote on the Federal Suffrage Amendment in House and Senate before the adjournment of the Sixty-fifth Congress.

  2. 2. To declare an emergency and call the regular annual convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association for August instead of November of 1916.

The issued call announced that the Board felt that the time had come to take a hand in the fall elections, but they were unwilling to dictate an election policy without conference with the workers from all the States. “There is a crisis in our movement,“ rang the summons, “which no worker can fail to recognize. The wisest, sanest and best balanced judgment is needed to determine the next steps. Suffragists, prepare for the most important meeting in the annals of our movement.“

No matter what Republican and Democratic planks said, suffragists were in no mood to go to the States again and beg the vote from Negroes, immigrants and the liquor trade. The first step was to put their own house in order. The Emergency Convention met at Atlantic City on September 4. The candidates of both dominant parties had been asked to address it. Both had been interviewed before their nomination and again after the nominations. On June 17 a deputation had waited upon Mr. Charles E. Hughes in New York. He frankly espoused the Federal Suffrage Amendment but asked that his views be regarded as confidential until after his official notification of the party platform. On August 1, according to understanding, he issued a public statement approving the Amendment. On the same day a deputation called upon President Wilson in Washington. The news that Mr. Hughes had endorsed the Amendment had just reached the White House as the deputation entered, and the President announced it to the women who had expected to tell it to him. He then reiterated his belief that woman suffrage should come by State action. Candidate Hughes considered his endorsement a sufficient attention to the woman suffrage question and did not accept the invitation to address the National Convention, at Atlantic City, but President Wilson accepted.

The great theatre was filled with the convention delegates and as many others as the seats would accommodate when the President and his staff arrived. A guard of honor composed a line through which he passed to his seat upon the platform where he was received by the standing audience, cheering joyously. Mr. Wilson was not a suffragist when he entered the White House; but he went to New Jersey to vote for the suffrage amendment in 1915 and he had declared his open sympathy with the principle in 1916. Much has been said as to the factors which led to his final conversion to the Federal Suffrage Amendment. The Woman's Party claims that its anti-Democratic policy, its anti-Wilson demonstrations, including the constant picketing of the White House, and the burning of his book “The New Freedom“ and his effigy, were the source of his change of attitude. The National Suffrage Association credits him with yielding to the momentum of the movement which was rapidly reaching its climax in his administration and which grew in spite of and not because of these demonstrations. It places the very hour when conversion to the principle became with him conversion to an obligation to join the campaign. Standing before that great audience, four-fifths of which were women, he said, “I have come to fight not for you but with you, and in the end I think we shall not quarrel over the method.“

Dr. Shaw, the master orator, was introduced to speak the closing words of that wonderful evening. Said she: “We have waited so long, Mr. President! We have dared to hope that our release might come in your administration and that yours would be the voice to pronounce the words to bring our freedom.“ With a slightly muffled, rustling sound the great audience was on its feet, with every eye upon the President. On every face was a look that seemed to say, “Oh, Mr. President, we have indeed waited so long, so long.“ Yet there was no sound. Silent, unmoving, the audience stood, a spellbound living petition to the most influential man in the nation-the President of the United States. Suffragists had planned and staged many a demonstration to prove the reasonableness of their claim and the strength of their demand, but none ever equaled the spontaneous united appeal of that Atlantic City audience. And whether the National Suffrage Association is right or not in believing that then and there the President was transformed from a sympathizer with woman suffrage into a campaigner for it, certainly it was the Association's experience that from that date he never declined to find time for a deputation from it, never refused to grant any request for aid.

The Atlantic City Convention had opened with a closed session of the Executive Council which proved the most crucial of any session of any convention yet held. The president of the Association, addressing the Council, said:

“The Congressional work in Washington for the last six months cost $5,000. What are the results? An honest, reliable poll of the Congress and the absolute assurance that the Amendment cannot go through! We have gained the long sought planks in all party platforms, but those of the dominant ones tell us to go to the States for our vote. We have brought the demand of a great public opinion, and the achievement of one-fourth of the States won for full suffrage. It should be a sufficient mandate from the country, and the time has come to complete the campaign for the enfranchisement of women by the Federal Amendment. This has always been the plan. The time to turn back from the States to Congress is here. The facts are that the Congress does not recognize woman suffrage as an issue in its own constituencies, and now regards the issue as dismissed from Washington responsibility. Be assured that no committee, however gifted or large, can push that amendment through, nor can it do so with the support of part of our forces. Nothing short of a campaign in every constituency will give our committee in Washington the authority to get the Amendment submitted. There can be no serene, undisturbed army at home resting on its arms and yet expecting victory in the nation's Capitol.

“There is one way to bring the Federal Amendment and only one, a solemn compact signed by the auxiliaries of at least thirty-six States that they will turn the full power of their organizations into the fight to secure the submission of the Amendment and ratification by their Legislatures. Each must secure the pledged votes of its delegation in the Congress and a majority in its Legislature.

“The resolutions passed by twenty-eight Legislatures, calling for a national constitutional convention, forced the submission of the income tax amendment. You must secure resolutions calling upon Congress to submit the Suffrage Amendment. Voting women and the possible power in their hands proved an impressive argument in the presidential campaign. You must increase the number by securing presidential suffrage in as many States. The campaigns pending must go forward to success. We have brought a mandate; but we will bring a bigger one, and before it even the Senate will surrender. That mandate should be a resolution from at least twenty-eight States calling upon Congress to submit the amendment, and presidential suffrage in as many States.

“There must be at least thirty-six State armies, alert, intelligent, never pausing, and they must move in the fixed formation demanded by the national strategy adopted. We already have the members, but many members consider themselves 'reserve forces.' This is the time to call them all out, Do not forget that we cannot win with thirty-five States, it must be thirty-six. What will you do?“

In opening the public sessions of the convention, the president of the suffrage association said:

“Our cause has been caught in a snarl of constitutional obstructions and inadequate election laws. We have a right to appeal to our Congress to extricate our cause from this tangle. If there is any chivalry left, this is the time for it to come forward and do an act of simple justice. The women of this land not only have the right to sit on the steps of Congress until it acts but it is their self-respecting duty to insist upon their enfranchisement by that route.

“But, let me implore you, sister women, not to imagine a Federal Amendment an easy process of enfranchisement. There is no quick, short cut to our liberty. The Federal Amendment means a simultaneous campaign in forty-eight States. It demands organization in every precinct; activity, agitation, education in every corner. It means an appeal to the voters only little less general than is required in a referendum. Nothing less than this nationwide, vigilant, unceasing campaigning will win the ratification.

“A few women here and there have dropped out from State work in the fond delusion that there is no need of work if the Federal Amendment is to be the aim. I hold such women to be more dangerous enemies of our cause than the known opponent. State work alone can carry the Amendment through Congress and through the ratifications. There must be no shirkers, no cowards, no backsliders these coming months. The army in every State must grow larger and larger. The activity must grow livelier and ever more lively. The reserves must be aroused and set to work. Women arise: demand the vote!“

By spectacular demonstration, the difficulties of amending State constitutions were shown at the convention, the different classes being called The Impossibles, The Insuperables, The Inexecutables, The Improbables, The Indubitables, The Inexcusables, The Irreproachables, the last interpreted as the suffrage States. A three cornered debate on the question of the Federal Amendment, State Amendment or both occupied an afternoon. As a result of these numerous features designed to clarify the Association's own point of view, the convention decided to pursue its time-honored course of bringing the mandate from the States to the support of the Federal Amendment until it should pass, and that the mandate should take the form of presidential suffrage and resolutions as recommended from Legislatures, calling for submission of the Federal Suffrage Amendment. The convention called upon Congress for the thirty-eighth time in annual convention to submit the Federal Amendment and called upon the dominant parties to prove the sincerity of their planks by taking immediate action in the campaign States to carry pending amendments to victory.

In a private conference “the solemn compact“ was adopted and signed by more than thirty-six States. From that moment there were no defections, no doubts, no differences in the Association. A great army in perfect discipline moved forward to its goal.

While the Republican and Progressive conventions were meeting, the news had flashed over the wires of the Iowa defeat. It came while the Resolutions Committee was discussing the suffrage plank and it had had its deterrent effect upon the minds of the doubtful. Few victories came to stiffen the faith of political friends as the months crept by. On the contrary the Congress returned to Washington in December in petulant mood. Suffragists had witnessed ruffled congressional minds before, but none like these.

The Woman's party in 1916 had again campaigned against all Democratic candidates in Western enfranchised States, and while they had defeated none, they had succeeded in arousing the tempestuous irritation of every candidate to the nth degree. Republicans were in an even more unfriendly frame of mind, for Mr. Wilson had been re-elected by a narrow margin and by common consent that margin was acknowledged to have been furnished by the women voters of California. “Honest John Shafroth,“ best of Senatorial friends, calmed the dismay of the suffragists by the admonition: “Take my advice and just hold off a bit. Everybody's sore now and there seems no exception, but they'll get over it, they'll get over it, just wait until they settle down.“

The National Suffrage Association took a large house on Rhode Island Avenue, moved its Washington headquarters there and began its work of winning the Congress back to normal mood with regard to suffrage.

The winter wore away and no vote was secured. To the public the federal campaign seemed calm, but the home fires were burning. Ah, how they did burn! The campaign in the States was moving faster and faster. Meanwhile that margin for Mr. Wilson, alleged to have been won by California women voters, served as a leaven in the big prejudiced Democratic loaf. “I had no idea that women would show such intelligent discrimination in political affairs,“ said one Democrat to another, and that interpretation became widely disseminated until even the Southern press took on a more friendly attitude. Republicans, however, were more offish. They said that women had proved themselves sentimental and had voted for Mr. Wilson because his campaign slogan had been “he kept us out of war.“

Alas for slogans. Alas for belief that America could be kept out of war. On April 2, 1917, Mr. Wilson called a special session of the Congress and after a debate in which one hundred speeches were made, mostly on one side, the fateful vote was taken which involved the nation in the Great World War and engaged to send millions of men overseas.


* James Ferguson, Governor of Texas, James Nugent, New Jersey Stephen B. Fleming, Indiana, and former Representative Bartlett of Georgia. Upon investigation it was found that all of them were well known representatives of wet interests.

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