Women's Suffrage: Campaigning for Ratification

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff
by Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler
The Congress of the United Sta...
Hard Work for Special Sessions

Campaigning for Ratification

Long before the Federal Suffrage Amendment passed the Congress, the National American Woman Suffrage Association had its ratification campaign formulated to the last detail.

Every Legislature had been polled, Governors had been interviewed, the press kept informed of the necessary procedure of the campaign, and an expectant, eager army, thoroughly well-equipped and trained, was waiting for the next move. Before the sun set on June 4, telegrams had been sent to all Governors where special legislative sessions would be necessary, urging that such sessions be called. Instructions for still more intensive campaigns with Governors, legislators and the press were wired to State auxiliaries to the National Suffrage Association, and when the sun rose on June 5 the campaign was already under full speed.

The situation was complicated by the fact that only six State Legislatures meet annually (those of New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Georgia) and these, with five others (Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, Louisiana and Mississippi) whose regular sessions would be held in 1920, were the only ones that would have an opportunity to take action before the Presidential election of 1920, unless it were possible to reach Legislatures before adjournment in some States and to secure extra sessions in others.

The response to the National Suffrage Association's effort to catch these adjourning Legislatures and to secure the extra sessions was immediate and, to the uninitiated, of happiest augury for quick and complete success.

All the next day, and for many days to come telegrams poured into the Association's office from Governors. The first answers were from Alfred E. Smith, Democratic Governor of New York, and Henry J. Allen, Republican Governor of Kansas. Fourteen Governors answered yes definitely, and several others answered that they would call special sessions provided a sufficient number of other Governors would do so. Thereupon the National Suffrage Association, on June 9, sent telegrams to twenty-four Governors, which read, “Ten State Legislatures now in session, or meeting in called session, are expected to ratify the Federal Suffrage Amendment. Four meeting January, 1920, are certain to do so. Would you be willing to agree to be one of twenty-two Governors to call a special session in order to complete ratification before Presidential election?“ This telegram brought immediate answers from several Governors, pledging special sessions, and on June 10 came the first ratification.

The Legislatures of Illinois and Wisconsin being on the eve of adjournment, the Suffrage Amendment was wired to both from Washington for ratification. Thereupon started a lively contest between the two States for first place. Illinois newspapers helped by calling loudly upon the Legislature to be “First“; her Governor, Frank O. Lowden, helped by sending a spirited message to the Legislature; and her Assembly helped by introducing into the Senate a resolution for ratification twenty-four hours after the passage of the amendment and before the receipt of the official notification. Action was taken on June 10.

Two letters in the alphabet came near losing Illinois first place. A sentence in the joint resolution transmitted from the federal Secretary of State's office to the Illinois Governor read “which shall be valid for all events and purposes as part of the constitution.“ “Events“ should have been “intents.“ Legal authorities said that ratification was not invalidated, but to be safe the Illinois Legislature re-ratified June 17.

Wisconsin ratified on the same day-in spite of Senator Herman Bilgrien, who, for reasons good and sufficient to himself, voted no. Pressed for these reasons by reporters, he objected to telling them because he feared that he would not be quoted correctly, so he carefully wrote out a statement which was printed in the Wisconsin State Journal Thursday, June 12, 1919, and is reproduced below:

  1. 1 I and my Wife agree on point 1, a house Wife belongs to home near her children and to keep hous, and not in open public Politic.

  2. 2ond. it is only for the city Women in larger Cities that want to vote and to get the control of the Country vote. to Elect State officers and President of the U.S. because a Country Women wont not go to Vote they have all they wont to do to take care of their children and House Work garden and etc.

  3. 3th a Danger that the men will not go to the poles if the Women get Elected to any state Legislature. the big Danger will be that some hair pulling will going on if there will be Women Elected in the State Legislature they will be worse as the Attorneys at present.

The classic quality of the Bilgrien argument was not lost on the general public, which gasped with surprise at this evidence that such a grade of male intelligence and literacy should be allowed to sit in high places and pass judgment on women of brains and culture in their appeal for justice. There was no surprise in it, only grim humor, for suffragists. They had had to present their case before the tribunal of just such a grade of intelligence and literacy all too often.

The gallant competition for first place between Illinois and Wisconsin led a Wisconsin officer of the National Suffrage Association to obtain an appointment from the Wisconsin Governor for ex-Senator David G. James, an old-time suffragist, to carry Wisconsin's ratification in person to Washington. Mr. James allowed himself to be pressed into the service, rushed out to buy extra clothing, arranged his business over the telephone, and left on the first train. Thus Wisconsin had the distinction of filing her certificate first.

Commenting on the ratification, the Wisconsin State Journal said: “This Legislature is free, at least, which is something that cannot be said of all former sessions. For many years the brewers of Wisconsin were the political power in the State and the brewers of Wisconsin would not have allowed the ratification of the equal suffrage amendment.“

Michigan was the third State to ratify. Kansas the next, then Ohio, then New York, each ratification having some drama of its own and all being received with loud acclaim by the public.

New York might reasonably have offered an excuse for delay in ratifying, inasmuch as its Legislature was to meet in regular session in January, 1920, but Governor Alfred E. Smith called the Legislature in special session June 16. After the Assembly had approved the Amendment unanimously, Mrs. Ida Sammis and Mrs. Mary B. Lilly, Republican and Democratic Assemblywomen respectively, were appointed to carry the notification to the Senate, “an event unprecedented in the history of New York State.“ In three and one-half hours the historic scene was over. In both Houses action was unanimous.

Six ratifications had now taken place in as many days. The State auxiliaries of the National Suffrage Association continued to send delegations to their Governors with appeals for ratification and the Association itself continued to press for more and still more special sessions. After consulting with the representatives of the National Suffrage Association four State Governors sent letters to all other Governors to suggest unity of action. The four were Governors J. A. A. Burnquist, Minnesota; Samuel B. McKelvie, Nebraska; James E. Goodrich, Indiana; and William D. Stephens, California. The results of these polls were sent later to the National Suffrage Association's office. Governor Burnquist reported twenty-eight favorable replies. In the meantime the Legislatures of three States in regular session-Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Texas-ratified, and special sessions with ratification followed in Iowa and Missouri.

In Pennsylvania the cause of ratification was greatly forwarded by the steadfastly favorable attitude of Governor Sproul, Republican. In his inaugural address he said that he would be “gratified and proud“ if the State should be among the first to ratify, and it was very generally alleged that had it not been for his determined action, which compelled party leaders to respect their promises, the General Assembly, inherently hostile to woman suffrage, never would have gone on record for ratification.

Pennsylvania's ratification campaign was marked, too, by the withdrawal of U. S. Senator Boies Penrose from the active opposition. True, he took his time to get out of the way, and side-tracked all appeals until he could go fishing. Evidently the fishing was good, for get out of the way he did.

With the ban of the Penrose influence lifted, the joint resolution passed the Pennsylvania Senate, on June 24, was rushed to the House, referred to the Judiciary special committee, and in less than three minutes reported out by a vote of 16 to 1. Speeches occupied three-quarters of an hour. Then came the roll-call. Half way through the women who were polling said, “We have enough votes now.“ Before the Speaker could announce the result, one enthusiastic legislator leaped to his feet and shouted “It's gone over, Mr. Speaker, it's gone over!“ Whereupon the men burst into song.

Then the House took occasion to express its appreciation of the Pennsylvania State Suffrage Association, State auxiliary to the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and to credit the victory to its tactics and personnel. The State president was given opportunity to address the House from the Speaker's rostrum, the first time in Pennsylvania's history that the honor had been accorded to a woman.

Perhaps no ratification aroused more rejoicing among suffragists than the victory in rock-ribbed old Massachusetts, the State where the first shot was fired in the Revolution against taxation without representation; the first State to send a regiment to the front in the Civil War and a fully equipped regiment to Europe in the World War; the home of the oldest and strongest anti-suffrage association in the United States, whose workers had been sent all over the country to flood it with misleading literature; the birthplace of Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony, the seat of the first National Woman's Rights Convention in 1850, and eighth State to ratify the Federal Suffrage Amendment.

In Texas, first among Southern or Southwestern States to ratify, filibustering, threats, heckling, fervid oratory on woman's sphere, and women antis were used by the opposition in every conceivable way to defeat, deflect or delay the ratification. In vain. The suffrage men stood firm. A concurrent resolution providing that the members of the Senate and House resign immediately and go before the voters for re-election in order to obtain an expression on the question was referred to committee. Suffrage gained votes in the Senate with every substitute proposal. Finally, the effort to defeat ratification became so vehement that six Senators agreed to resign if ten more would do so, sixteen defalcations being necessary to break the quorum. That failed. Then, on voting to pass the resolution to third reading three Senators (Alderdice, Suiter and Wood) changed their vote from “no“ to “yes,“ the opposition was broken, and Texas ratified.

Immediately after the ratification, one of the bitterest of wet and dry fights was precipitated in Texas. The impeached ex-Governor, James E. Ferguson, against whom the women had voted in the primary election, aided by the “wets,“ organized an anti-suffrage association. They began their work in the courts and attacked the primary law. Losing in the first decision, they announced their aim to prevent ratification in thirty-six States until after the next regular session of the Texas Legislature in 1921. Meanwhile they intended to make it an issue and elect an anti-suffrage Legislature which would repeal the ratification just secured.

In Iowa, Governor William L. Harding called the Legislature in special session on July 2, for the sole purpose of ratifying the Federal Suffrage Amendment. The Legislature convened at ten A. M., at 11:40 the resolution had passed both Houses, and the struggle begun in Iowa in 1868 was triumphantly finished.

In Missouri the opposition to a special session which at first seemed formidable soon melted away, and both the representative who had called the movement “bunk“ and the other who had favored giving women the “mallet instead of the ballot“ found themselves sitting in their respective places one hot day, July 2, listening to the reading of Governor Frederick D. Gardner's message, which closed with the words, “I entertain an abiding faith that you will give the subject favorable consideration.“

The Governor's faith was justified. Early in the poll it was seen that the ayes would have it. It was Charles P. Comer, an especially vehement opponent, who gave the key to the situation, after going on record with his aye. “I've played poker long enough to know when to lay down my hand,“ said he.

Eleven States had now ratified within one month. While not quite one-fourth of the United States, or one-third of the number required to ratify the Amendment, these States contained more than one-half the population of the whole country. The group included every large State entitled to eighteen or more Presidential electors in the Electoral College. The Amendment had therefore a clear majority of the American people in its favor, as attested by the ratifying votes of their representative bodies, a fact that went far to lay low the charge, still made by the opposition, that a small minority was seeking to impose its will on a large majority of the people.

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