Women's Suffrage: More Victories and More Defeats

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff
by Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler
The Decisive Battle
The Congress of the United Sta...

More Victories and More Defeats

As a consequence of the adoption of suffrage resolutions by the two major political parties in the conventions of 1916, friends of the suffrage cause in many State Legislatures proposed amendments to State constitutions providing for the enfranchisement of women by referenda. In some States these resolutions passed one house only, but from 1916 to 1919 there were submissions in seven States besides New York: West Virginia, Maine, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Louisiana and Texas.

It so happened that in West Virginia, when the campaign opened in 1916, the same woman was president of the State Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Suffrage Association, a connection never made before in the life of the two organizations. There was some rejoicing in the ranks of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union that the leadership of the campaign had fallen to one of their number who could thus command the aid of their organization and through it reach the churches in behalf of suffrage. So many State suffrage campaigns had been lost that it was natural that the Woman's Christian Temperance Union should have come to distrust somewhat the ability of the suffragists to conduct winning campaigns.

Ever since 1882 the Woman's Christian Temperance Union had had a Franchise Department which aimed to educate its following to a belief in woman suffrage. Addresses made by Woman's Christian Temperance Union speakers, presenting the faith that ?the ballot in the hands of women would destroy the rum traffic,? contributed much to the fears of the wet interests. Woman's Christian Temperance Union women believed that the church vote, which was the main support of prohibition, would follow their lead in suffrage campaigns. Yet often when they had desired to initiate suffrage campaigns on their own account these same women had magnanimously given way to the suffrage organizations whose sole object was to secure the enfranchisement of women.

The West Virginia campaign became, then, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union's suffrage opportunity. The State had had a Prohibition campaign the year before and the question had carried by a majority of 100,000. The wets were infuriated by the Prohibition victory and especially incensed by the stringency of the enforcement law, and they determined at any cost to defeat the suffrage amendment. They did defeat it, too, by a majority of 98,067, nearly as large as the majority the year before for Prohibition.

Yet the campaign was a good one. Not one recognized means of campaigning was overlooked and several features were remarkably well done. A ?flying squadron? of prominent men and women speakers was sent to thirty points in the State; an ex-Governor, Judges and members of the State Legislature were among the speakers. Twenty organizers were in the field; the voters were thoroughly circularized with general literature, and 200,000 congressional speeches on suffrage were mailed them. There was advertising in all of the rural newspapers.

At both Democratic and Republican State Conventions there were evidences of the attempts of the wets to organize the opposition. Resolutions passed, endorsing the amendment, were ineffective because of this wet control. To this opposition were added the many church drys who still adhered to ideas of woman's sphere out-worn in Northern States. Moreover, no State campaign ever quite so completely rallied the ?drunks? and the ?ne'er do weels? of all kinds on election day as did West Virginia's. The vote was ayes, 63,540; nays, 161,607.

While the campaign for votes for women was going on in New York, another was in progress in Maine. Here the suffrage strength was limited to small groups in a few of the large cities. However, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union had been for many years a thoroughly well-organized and highly influential body. Their members were chagrined at the failure in West Virginia and welcomed the opportunity of another trial of their forces. An officer and prominent worker in their organization acted as chairman of the campaign committee. The campaign was a short one, lasting only five months and closing with the election in September, 1917.

The argument for suffrage was never put before the voters of any State more thoroughly. They were circularized with a suffrage speech made in the United States Senate by John Shafroth, and again with ?Have You Heard the News?? which carried the latest statement of the suffrage gains the world around. The same envelope, which was mailed to each voter of the State, carried a printed petition over the signatures of the women of the county in which he resided. In these petitions there was better proof than any State had yet given that the women wanted the vote. House-to-house distribution of fliers was made in several communities. A million and a half leaflets were distributed-ten to every voter in the State. The clergy were circularized three times, the State Grange, the committees of the political parties and members of the Legislature, twice. About five hundred meetings were held. An ex-chairman of the Democratic State Central Committee talked and worked for suffrage. The President of the United States appealed to the Democrats by letter. The Republican Governor, a popular man, spoke for it.

Yet the amendment was defeated, nays 38,838; ayes, 20,604. The vote was one of the smallest in the State's history. One hundred thousand men who voted the year before did not go to the polls. Thirty-eight thousand women petitioned for the vote and only 20,000 men answered, ?Yes.?

It was at least clear that men do not vote as ?their wives tell them to? nor, put to the acid test of numbers, could the result be taken as ?the voice of the people.?

The campaigns of Colorado in 1893 and Idaho in 1896 cost $1,800 each, that of California in 1896, where all the large cities carried except San Francisco, Sacramento and Oakland, cost $18,000. The campaign in Maine cost the National Suffrage Association $15,268. What then was wrong with Maine? A worker in the campaign gave these reasons for defeat, ?Natural conservatism, the picketing of the White House, the War, but of far greater influence the antagonism of the two political machines and the pronounced wet opposition, which was in evidence from the first.?

No outsider would believe there was wet opposition in the supposedly dry State of Maine, but the truth was the brewers had never entirely given up Maine. In 1911, after several attempts, they secured a referendum on the question whether the Prohibition amendment should be resubmitted, the vote resulting in a majority against resubmission. Representatives of the brewers' association were sent to the State in 1915 to make a secret survey. Writing in February of that year to the President of the United Brewers' Association, Percy Andreae said: ?The press of Maine has obtained knowledge of the investigation now proceeding. . . . Fortunately our men have nearly completed their work but they have had to go back into the State under another guise.?[1]* In a report printed later these men stated that all of Maine was for prohibition but only a small part for enforcement.

In 1918 there were four State suffrage campaigns, three of which were successful-South Dakota, Michigan, and Oklahoma-all conducted under the most difficult and distracting conditions. The handicaps of war and an influenza epidemic affected all States equally. As a preliminary to the campaigns the National Suffrage Association contributed suffrage schools to these States for the purpose of instructing the workers. Later it supplied eighteen organizers, press helps, 100,000 posters, 2,528,000 pieces of literature, eighteen street banners and 50,000 buttons. One requirement for assistance from the National Suffrage Association was that each State should secure signatures of women on petitions for suffrage. The combined number obtained by the three States was 310,687. The cost of these campaigns to the National Suffrage Association was $30,720, in addition to expenses borne by the States.

In South Dakota, as in nine other States in 1918, the foreign-born could vote on their ?first papers? and citizenship was not a qualification for the vote. Suffrage had been defeated in six prior campaigns, each time by a mobilization of this alien vote by Americanborn political manipulators. In 1918 the tables turned. The war had created a feeling of caution concerning voting privileges in the hands of the aliens, and South Dakota was aroused to make a change in its laws in this respect. The South Dakota women, smarting under the defeat of 1916, at which time their amendment had been last lost by the foreign vote, mainly of German-Russians in nine counties, saw their opportunity and urged a bill which would combine woman suffrage and the qualification of citizenship for all voters.

Suffragists were willing to forego the opportunity offered because of the pressure of war work, but members of the Legislature said: ?We look to the women to wage the best campaign they have ever waged.? So the women went to work to such purpose that the suffrage majority was 19,286. The cost of the campaign was $7,500, the small cost being due to the absence of the organized opposition that usually entered a campaign State from the outside, this absence being due in part to the alien clause in the amendment, a State official having pointed out early in the campaign that should outsiders attempt to come into the State to work against the amendment, they would be turned back on the grounds that they were unpatriotic, undemocratic, un-American.

The campaign in Michigan was unique because of its co-operative basis. The National Suffrage Association's State auxiliary had the assistance of both political parties and their representatives. Professional and business men formed themselves into a federation to give more effective aid. All three States acknowledged that the petitions of women to the voters were a determining factor in the victory. Michigan obtained 202,000 names on these petitions. One State suffragist said, and her letter was typical of many others: ?We decided that our last shot should be the publication of 14,000 signatures of women who had asked the men in our town to vote 'Yes.' The names filled three newspapers and was the talk of the town.? The amendment carried by a majority of 34,506, ayes-229,790; nays-195,284.

The Oklahoma campaign of 1918 was not the first in that State. The story of 1899 has already been sketched. In 1910 suffragists obtained 40,000 signatures on an initiative petition and forced the submission of the question to the voters. This was defeated at the polls that year, ayes-88,808; nays-128,928. In 1917 some members of the Board of the Suffrage Association of Oklahoma and the Legislative Committee of the Oklahoma State Federation of Women's Clubs jointly secured the passage of a bill providing for a State referendum on woman suffrage in November, 1918.

Oklahoma is one of the States whose constitutions require a majority of the highest number of votes cast in the general election to carry an amendment. Every ballot cast in the election which fails to record an opinion on the amendment is termed a ?silent vote? and is counted as a negative vote. It is a task to arouse the voter to such a degree of interest that he remembers to mark his ballot on amendments. Suffragists were pessimistic and said: ?It can't be done.? The severe heat of the summer and a third successive drought, with crop failure, made local handicaps many and difficult.

Both Democratic and Republican parties gave assistance, their State conventions passing strong resolutions for suffrage. During the campaign one and one-half million pieces of suffrage literature were distributed and during its last week 126,000 copies of a suffrage supplement went out through the newspapers of the State. The National Suffrage Association gave eleven organizers to the State and spent $18,000 in the campaign.

The National Suffrage Association's representatives responsible for the campaign were able from the first to locate the centre of opposition in Oklahoma. It lay in what was called the ?Capitol Ring? and included the Governor, Robert L. Williams, the Lieutenant-Governor, Edw. Trapp, the Attorney General, S. P. Freeling, and the Secretary of the State Elections Board, who was also a Senator, W. C. McAlester. These four men had the reputation of holding in their hands the power to defeat any measure in the State. All of them openly opposed the amendment, but the first evidence of effective hostility was revealed in August, 1918, when it was generally alleged that the Secretary of the Elections Board had told the women antis from the North to go home, as the failure of the Secretary of State to supply the official wording of the suffrage amendment to the Elections Board ninety days before election would keep the question of woman suffrage off the ballot. An appeal was made to Judge Ledbetter of Oklahoma City who had become the legal adviser of the suffragists, and to Mr. Lyons, Secretary of State. To the persistent work of these two men was due the fact that this obstacle was finally removed, and the amendment was printed.

As it was necessary to obtain a majority of all the votes cast at the election, the suffragists desired the amendment to be on the regular ballot. If it were not there, the old tricks which had so often defeated suffrage amendments would probably be repeated. The Elections Board could do as it chose, and its members decided to use a separate ballot. A large part of the campaign was necessarily devoted to educating the electorate to the task of marking the separate ballot. The most successful device was the printing of a million red, white and blue leaflets showing a separate sample ballot with the amendment and the correct way to mark it, with a reminder that if a man forgot to vote he was recorded as voting ?No.?

The next obstacle was the discovery that the Elections Board had printed only half as many suffrage ballots as regular ballots. To offset that local workers were informed they could legally have extra ballots printed at State expense wherever there was a shortage, and they were also urged to have sworn statements of any fraud detected sent to the suffrage headquarters.

On October 16, Oklahoma soldiers voted in seven camps, Bowie, McArthur, Logan, Travis, Cody, Norman and Dix, and presently it was discovered that suffrage amendment ballots had not been furnished for them. The evidence was collected as speedily as possible and turned over to Judge Ledbetter, and an appeal was made to Governor Williams, who finally agreed to see that suffrage ballots were sent to Ft. Sill where, too, the soldiers were to vote in a few days. Later he suggested that two representatives from the Campaign Suffrage Committee go, at State expense, to the cantonments where elections had already been held and take the vote on the amendment, adding, ?I must also send two from the Anti-Suffrage organization.? He went so far as to give the representatives of the National Suffrage Association letters to the commanding officers at the camps. These letters read:

- October 28, 1918.

From: The Governor of the State of Oklahoma.

To: The Commanding Officer of Camp Bowie, Ft. Worth, Texas.

Subject: Matter of soldiers voting on constitutional amendment.

I. It has been brought to my attention that in some of the Army Camps ballots were not furnished to the soldiers so that they had an opportunity to vote on the constitutional amendment relating to Woman Suffrage in Oklahoma. I see no objection where the soldiers were furnished with the proper forms for affidavit and ballot to separately cast their votes through the mails on this constitutional amendment. Where the soldiers desire to qualify for this purpose, by making the affidavit, I see no objection to the proper officers taking their affidavit for such purpose although they have heretofore voted for national, State or county offices. I suggest, however, that the soldier mail his ballot on the constitutional amendment to the same person to whom he mailed his vote to be cast for him in his home precinct for national, State or county officers.

In order that my meaning may be made clear, I see no objection to the soldier voting separately on the constitutional amendment and sending the same separately to the same person to whom the vote was sent on national, State or county officers to be cast. And I would be very glad to see this done so that every soldier should have an opportunity to vote on this constitutional amendment.

- R. L. Williams.

This sounded well but it was now October 28 with the election scheduled for November 5. It was impossible for the suffragists to send workers to seven widely separated camps. Besides, they were suspicious of a trap. Warned by previous experiences, they had made an exhaustive study of the election law and they knew that the soldier was entitled to return only one sealed envelope. If he had already sent one containing his vote for State officials he could not legally send another with his vote on the suffrage amendment.

In the meantime, to prevent a repetition of what had happened in other camps, instructions had been given to the suffrage captain at Lawton, near Ft. Still, to prepare for the election. The Democrat sent by the Board of Elections arrived the night before the vote was to be taken. The suffragists were on the watch and at eleven P.M. they found he had no suffrage ballots. This possibility had been anticipated and met by the printing of four hundred ballots. The next morning at eight o'clock suffragists went to the tent where the voting was to take place. Neither voters nor officials appeared. There was a deluge of rain, the women tramped from one military post to the other, and at last discovered that the Democratic and Republican representatives were in a motor car taking the vote at the different regimental headquarters. A colonel, taking pity on the women, agreed to send the suffrage ballots to the various headquarters, and at five P.M., drenched and fatigued, the suffragists started for home.

But the soldiers did not get their ballots.

Signed statements to this effect were obtained from the representatives of both parties who had conducted the elections at the camps, and from the soldiers themselves, many of whom wrote home to suffrage mothers, to ask why they had not been allowed to vote on woman suffrage. The number of votes thus lost was estimated at 4,197, that being the number of soldiers in the camps who voted for State officials.

From the beginning those responsible for the campaign had emphasized the necessity of women at every precinct on election day to act both as watchers inside the polling booth and outside to remind the men that woman suffrage was to be voted on. When in any town one political party denied the women the privilege of watching, the National Suffrage Association's representatives made a point of securing appointments as regular watchers for the other party. When the list of watchers was completed, printed slips were sent them with spaces for name of County, Town, Number of Voting Precincts, and the For and Opposed, Blank, Void and Total Vote with space for Name of Chairman of Elections Board and name of Watcher with the statement, ?I certify that the above is correct.? Watchers were asked to telephone returns to Suffrage Headquarters as early as possible election night, but if for any reason the count was delayed the women were told to remain at their posts and mail the tally slips as soon as possible.

To this precaution the women of Oklahoma owe the fact that they were able to keep their vote after it had been won.

The work of the suffragists was so well done that although the polls did not close on election day until seven o'clock, returns from all precincts in Oklahoma City except three were in by nine o'clock and showed that thirty-nine of the fifty-one precincts had been carried for the amendment. Oklahoma County had been considered the most difficult in the State and it was predicted that the result in that county would indicate the returns from the State at large. By midnight returns were in from fifteen counties and all indicated majorities in favor. But workers were everywhere cautioned not to claim victory publicly, for if they did the familiar trick used in other States would undoubtedly be practiced. That is, returns from districts under control of unscrupulous election officials would be held back until the favorable majorities had been reported and then an adverse vote would be piled up out of these delayed returns sufficient to overcome the favorable majorities.

The morning after election the Daily Oklahoman printed returns showing that twenty-three counties had been carried for suffrage. The State Elections board began to show signs of worry. Two days later the suffragists caused the publication of a statement by a member of the State Elections Board declaring that the Suffrage Amendment had carried in twenty-three counties. Local workers were instructed to procure at once the returns from a list of thirty-three counties.

Two members of the Elections Board frankly admitted that an effort was being made to count out the amendment and gave suffragists a list of counties where work to this end had been begun. Returns from certain counties were being held back. There were unaccountable discrepancies in the figures of the State Elections Board and those received by the suffragists. In 1916 Attorney-General S. P. Freeling had made a ruling, in the case of Murray vs. McGowan asking for a recount, ?that the Elections Board could not go behind the returns certified to it by the County Elections Boards.? It was clear that if the suffragists could secure the returns on their slips, signed by the Chairmen of the County Election Boards, and have them printed in as many city, county and local newspapers as possible, there would be less chance of the figures being changed at the Headquarters of the Elections Board. All day Saturday and Sunday women remained at the telephone, confirming and checking returns, and on Monday were ready with a report of sixty-three out of seventy-seven counties. Of these only six had lost, one by one vote, two by three and one by six.

During this time the suffragists were told that the Secretary of the State Elections Board had been asking officials in certain counties to open the sealed boxes and give returns from the stub books which would include all mutilated and spoiled ballots. This would have been to repeat old election history in Oklahoma. After the Oklahoma election of 1916 just such fraudulent procedures had been charged and, in the opinion of many, proved. It made the watching suffragists tremble to consider the possibilities but, trembling, they stayed steadfastly on guard at their posts.

Meantime the State was greatly aroused. Many men who had winked at election fraud in the old days now assured the suffragists that they wanted the women to get a ?square deal.? A campaign of letters, telegrams and telephones to the Governor was begun and he, as well as the Chairman of the Elections Board, was informed that the suffragists held affidavits of attempts at fraud. The Governor was a candidate for a federal judgeship and when prominent men over the State telephoned him and Congressmen from Washington wired him to know what the Elections Board was trying to do, it was plainly seen that he wished he were out of it.

On Thursday, November 14, the Daily Oklakoman printed a statement that the Governor and the members of the State Elections Board admitted that the returns showed that the suffrage amendment had carried. But the joy of the suffragists was short-lived. The Governor and the Elections Board had made the statement to relieve themselves of public criticism, but at the instigation of Attorney-General Freeling a protest against certification by the Elections Board was entered. This was signed by the officers of the Oklahoma Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage and members of the Advisory Board. These officers were Mrs. T. H. Sturgeon of Oklahoma City, President; Miss Alice Robertson of Muskogee, Vice-President;[2]* and Mrs. Eugene Lorton of Tulsa, Secretary. There was little public sympathy for this eleventh-hour effort of the antis to block the amendment. Most people believed the measure had carried and all believed that the antis were attempting to base hopes for defeat of the amendment upon slim technicalities. The newspapers very generally condemned the protest and pronounced it flimsy. It was based on the fact that the returns from counties had not separated the soldier from the civilian vote. The totals included both votes and separation could have no bearing on results. The aim was to increase the ?silent vote.? The well-laid plans of the opposition to count out the soldiers had not brought a sufficient number to defeat the amendment.

After much dallying Governor Williams called for the election returns and, without certification by the Elections Board, proclaimed on December 3 that woman suffrage had carried. At the time it was agreed by the attorneys representing both sides, in a formal hearing before the Governor, that the actual filing of the document should be withheld for three days in order to give the anti-suffrage attorneys an opportunity to institute proceedings against the Secretary of State, or through some other avenue of attack. They stated at that time that the validity of the adoption of the amendment would be contested.

The three days expired December 6, and no notice having been served in injunction proceedings, the document was made a matter of record. Thus was carried and recorded the second amendment to the State constitution of Oklahoma. The vote was ayes 106,909, nays 81,481. The majority on the amendment was 25,428; the majority of all the votes cast at the election was 9,791. The tricksters had been defeated.

While this campaign was going on in Oklahoma another was in progress in Louisiana, the first referendum on Woman Suffrage in the South. It had the support of Governor Pleasant, who in his message to the Legislature had urged the great importance of the South's realizing the danger from the proposed submission of the Federal Woman Suffrage Amendment. A bitter three-cornered Senatorial fight being under way, the women were asked to postpone their activities until after the September primaries, which they did. Full preparations for a ?whirlwind campaign? for October had been made when an influenza epidemic broke out and the people were not allowed to assemble in any section of the State. A deluge of rain and the consequent impassable condition of the roads prevented any work in outlying districts. Thus there could be little campaign of personal appeal to the voters. Notwithstanding these adverse conditions, the majority against the amendment was only 3,500, nearly all of it in New Orleans. In that city Mayor Martin Behrman, through the ward ?bosses? of a well controlled machine, issued direct orders for defeat. Many parishes gave reports of precincts not opened at all on account of the epidemic and the weather.

The last referendum in any State on woman suffrage before the ratification of the Federal Woman Suffrage Amendment came in Texas on May 24, 1919. The Texas Legislature had already given women primary suffrage. The vote was taken on enfranchising women and requiring full citizenship as a qualification for the vote. There were only three months in which to reach the voters in 253 counties, and partially naturalized aliens were to be allowed to vote on the question while soldiers and women were to be debarred.

Four hundred woman suffrage leaders and 1,495 speakers were the medium through which 3,000,000 fliers and 200,000 copies of Texas Democrats, edited and managed for this occasion by Dr. A. Caswell Ellis, of the faculty of the University of Texas, reached the voters. The press, both rural and urban, gave magnificent support. More than ninety small papers issued a four-page suffrage supplement, while some of the most noteworthy editorials ever appearing in the pages of the big dailies were written in behalf of woman suffrage.

On the other hand every nook and corner of the State was flooded with anti literature, much of it mailed from Selma, Alabama. This literature was of such a vilely insinuating character that the day it was placed upon their desks the Representatives put aside all other business and passed a resolution, with only five dissenting votes, condemning its circulation.

Despite the fact that press, pulpit, educators, professional and laboring men and the organized Democrats of the State and nation stood behind the amendment, it failed by 25,000 votes. The impeached ex-Governor, James E. Ferguson, who was at war with all stable influences in the State, was alleged to have been one of the chief manipulators of this vote. After the defeat in May he said in a public statement that he never felt better in his life. ?My crops are fine, my cattle are fat and my crowd beat woman suffrage.?

Thus eight State referenda in two and a half years foot up four victories and four defeats. The total number of fully enfranchised women was now over seven and a quarter millions in fifteen States. And so successful had been the work for presidential suffrage that these seven and a quarter millions full-fledged voting women were flanked by eight millions more who could vote for President in twelve other States-thirteen, if Vermont, where the legislative grant of Presidential suffrage was in question, be included. Moreover, Texas, another one-party State, had followed the lead of Arkansas and granted primary suffrage to women. All told, the number of electoral votes affected by the fact of woman suffrage was 326, out of the total electoral college of 531. It meant the end of State referenda. No more educating the public to believe that the vote would not in some mysterious way throttle women's maternal instincts, no more climbing to top-most tenements and descending to bottom-most basements to plead with illiterates and foreign-born. The day of triumph of the Federal Suffrage Amendment was at hand.


* Senate Investigation; ?Brewing and Liquor Interests and German Propaganda,? Volume I, page 1048, Exhibit No. 838.


* The second woman to be elected to Congress, coming into office with the Republican landslide of 1920.

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