Women's Suffrage: Hard Work for Special Sessions

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff
by Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler
Campaigning for Ratification
The Legal Tests Begin

Hard Work for Special Sessions

There followed next a discouraging phase of the campaign, due to the failure of Western Governors to call special sessions. Not a State in the Far West had ratified. The National American Woman Suffrage Association's plan had been rapid action by Western full suffrage States first, ratification by the partial suffrage States second, and a concentration of forces on the Eastern States last, where women were not yet political factors. Western Governors and suffrage organizations, fully understanding the plan, had agreed to co-operate in carrying it out. But it was the East that took action first, while the West, instead of quick action, betrayed a baffling hesitation to act at all. Delays, excuses and messages not easy to understand were the only explanations offered.

In July, 1919, four envoys were sent out from the National Suffrage Association, two to visit the Republican States of Minnesota, North Dakota, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming, and the other two to the Democratic States of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Oklahoma. The mission of the envoys was to investigate the local political situation as it affected the call of a special session, to arouse favorable sentiment among politicians, editors and the people generally, and to secure definite statements from the Western Governors as to the conditions under which the Legislatures would be called and the probable date of calling.

The Northern envoys followed Governor Burnquist across the entire State of Minnesota. The Governor finally, by riding four miles bareback and thirty-six miles in a car from his ranch to a little town, met them and gave his pledge to call a session in September.

The Southern envoys, learning that Thomas E. Campbell, Governor of Arizona, was on a speaking trip and would not return to PhÅnix until September, secured his itinerary and, in spite of assurances that they could never overtake him, surprised him in a country hotel at Flagstaff where they secured a pledge for a session.

Women in the enfranchised States had been absorbed into the political parties and, with their suffrage campaign organizations practically dissolved, were in no position to carry out independent political action. They counseled patience when Governors replied “the women of my State have the suffrage-it will not help us“ or “an extra session will be too costly,“ although these reasons were serving to cloak the real motives which in many cases were petty politics. In some States the Governor was of one party, the Legislature of another, and the several Governors hesitated to call special sessions for fear such sessions might give a chance for discussion which would affect their candidacy or be harmful to their party in the coming November election. Two Governors, one a Republican and one a Democrat, had been threatened by factions of their own party with impeachment if their Legislatures were called.

After initiating various plans to secure sessions, the four envoys met in Salt Lake City where the annual conference of Governors was called for August 18-24, 1919. The formal appeal of the National Suffrage Association to the conference was delivered by the envoys and concluded as follows: “All that is required is early action in the fourteen favorable Western States. The West controls the fate of the campaign entirely. Upon the date of its action depends the date of completed ratification. The National American Woman Suffrage Association implores the Governors of the West, in conference assembled, to find some ground of common agreement, so that the ratification of their Legislatures may be secured in the months of September or October and thus insure final ratification by February 1.“

In response several Governors publicly restated pledges they had made privately to the envoys. On August 21, the following telegram was sent to National Suffrage Headquarters signed by the four envoys: “Republican Governors in conference this afternoon declared in favor of special sessions to ratify the Suffrage Amendment so that women may vote in 1920.“ Public pledges were brought back from seven Governors and confidential pledges from three.

But while several Governors were taking favorable action, one Governor, Ruffin G. Pleasant of Louisiana, was making an effort to secure a union of thirteen states to prevent ratification. He asked Southern Governors to join an alliance to demand that suffrage be gained by State action. This in face of the fact that suffragists had conducted weary campaigns for many years with the aim of securing State action, and had met with such stolid opposition that it had become necessary to resort to the only other method, a federal amendment! Governors C. H. Brough of Arkansas, James D. Black of Kentucky, Sidney J. Catts of Florida, and Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi publicly declined the invitation. If any such compact was effected, it was never made public.

Meantime a special session of the Arkansas Legislature had been called for July 28. As in Texas, so in Arkansas, the prejudices of the South were violently played upon by the opposition. A woman anti from Yonkers, New York, was imported to explain Southern traditions to Southerners, and the bogie of Negro domination was kept on constant parade.

Legislative debate brought into glaring relief the struggle between old-time Southern prejudice and the new spirit of Southern progressiveness.

“I'd rather see my daughter in her coffin than at the polls,“ declaimed one legislator.

Whereupon another rose to point out that in the estimation of that self-same tenderly protective father cattle ranked far ahead of daughters, for he had voted for $100,000 appropriation with which to fight ticks from the backs of Arkansas cattle and refused to vote one penny for the maintenance of an Industrial School for Arkansas girls.

The debate served also to bring into high relief the fact that, as in the far South, so also in Arkansas, a border State, Negro suffrage the bogie keeps Negro suffrage as a practice non-existent. Said one Senator, “If this Amendment is ratified there will be a domination of Negro rule in the South. Time will come when the people will wake up and find that women should not be enfranchised.“ Said another, “We'll attend to the Negro vote all right.“ Said the first Senator, “You say you'll attend to the Negro vote; well, how are you going to do it?“-Said the second, “Well, there may be several ways.-I remember one time I was in charge of a ballot box in which there were 319 Negro and only 17 white men's votes. I was riding mule back. Just as I got about in the middle of the bridge, while crossing a creek, my mule suddenly became frightened, pitched me off and I accidently let the ballot box drop into the creek. Neither the box nor the votes have ever been seen since.“

But neither the spectre of Negro rule nor the fear of contaminating women at the polls sufficed in the final analysis to stop the Arkansas Legislature. The long hard work of Arkansas suffragists reaped its reward in ratification.

The last days of July, 1919, proved a fecund season for ratifications. Besides Arkansas, two other States ratified. One was Nebraska, a State where the liquor interests had long made the suffrage going hard in the extreme,[1]* the other was Montana, first of the “farther West“ to get into line. “I shall be disappointed if the vote is not unanimous,“ said Nebraska's Governor to Nebraska's Legislature. The vote was unanimous. The Joint Judiciary Committee decided to put the resolution through with the same procedure as a bill in order that no attack could be made upon its validity. This action required five days.

By invitation the president of the State auxiliary to the National American Woman Suffrage Association, addressed both Houses. An interesting feature was the transmission of the resolution from the Senate to the House by Miss Schenck, the first woman who had ever served as Assistant Secretary of the Senate in Nebraska.

Came a lull through August. Then the September ratifications took the stage. Minnesota was first, and its Legislature wound up the task dramatically by singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic. New Hampshire came next.

In the latter State there had been only two special sessions in sixty-six years, and none at all for twenty-nine years; and to many minds that is always a cogent argument for not having any at all, whatever the proposition, for twenty-nine more years. So extreme and so curiously stressed was the opposition that Governor Bartlett made occasion to write: “It is said that if I dare call the Legislature together, with the consent of the Council,[2]â  they (the ring) will flay me alive, kill every reform measure passed last winter, the trustee bill, the school bill an so on. This is silly. I will risk all dangers that may come to me. Let us come together briefly and keep our pledges to give women the ballot. . . . No political or bodily fear will stop me for one second.“

The special session was duly called for September 9, and the Legislature duly ratified on that date.

Another lull, and then Utah swung into line on September 30 with a unanimous ratification. During the passage of the resolution in the House Assemblywoman Anna T. Pierson was in the chair.

At this point ratification seemed to reach a veritable impasse. An inexplicable situation was presented. The West was still strangely hesitant. The political battle front had shifted from the East where most opposition had been expected to the Pacific Coast where none had been anticipated. Seventeen States had ratified. Eleven having full suffrage in the far West had not called their sessions, although, with the exception of Oklahoma and Oregon, all had agreed to do so. Never in the history of the country was the provincialism of the States more apparent. In popular estimate the question of ratification seemed bounded by State lines and there was little national point of view. Said the press of Oregon, “Oregon has a sympathetic interest in ratification of the National Equal Suffrage Amendment but it is a detached interest when practical results are considered. The women of Oregon will gain nothing by ratification before the next presidential election. They will have full franchise rights in any event.“ And again: “It would seem that having waited so long for suffrage it will do no harm to postpone ratification.“

The entire country had conceded to the West the leadership in the movement for woman suffrage and expected that the generosity shown by Western men in extending the suffrage within their own States would be applied to the campaign to gain suffrage for the women of the nation. Their failure to do what was expected was a keen disappointment.

In order to arouse Western Governors to an understanding of the national aspects of the question, the National Suffrage Association now organized an appeal from the States which had ratified. This petition was signed by the presidents of the National Association's State auxiliaries, the members of the National Republican and Democratic committees, the chairmen of the State Republican and Democratic committees, and the official women representatives of the two parties. They were forwarded to the Governors of twelve States-Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming, with a special letter of entreaty from the National Suffrage Association which read in part:

We are well aware that the lives of all Governors of States in these times of unrest and reconstruction are over whelmingly full of duties and problems. It is not unlikely on this account that you may not have kept pace with the progress of the woman suffrage movement in war-torn Europe. I beg, therefore, to call your attention to the fact that all the Allied Countries of Europe have now not only granted the suffrage, but the women have actually exercised the right, with the exception of France, Portugal, Montenegro and Greece. The last of these to extend the suffrage to women was Serbia. The Italian House of Deputies has passed the measure and the Italian women assure us that the Senate will do so soon.

All the enemy countries, with the exception of Turkey and Bulgaria, have extended the suffrage to women. All the neutral countries of Europe, except Spain and Switzerland, have now extended the vote to women, the last of these being Luxemburg, Holland and Sweden.

The suffrage for women in most of these countries has come as an act of revolution or, as in Serbia, as a ukase from the Government.

Meanwhile, Rhodesia and British East Africa, whose governments stand in comparison to the self-governing colonies of Great Britain much as the territories do to our own government, have extended suffrage to their women.

In the face of these amazing developments it comes as a very depressing humiliation to American women that the heavy, slow-moving machinery of our democracy has delayed so long this simple act of democratic justice.

It doubtless is impossible for you, who have lived all your life in a State where women have had equal suffrage with men and where no comment is made upon the fact, to realize the feeling of hundreds of thousands of American women who have borne the brunt of the struggle in this country for their own enfranchisement. Women have lived long lives and have died in advanced years and yet have given their very all during their lifetime to this struggle. Women still living look backward over more than a generation of continued service of education and pleading with the political parties of this country to do them justice. Now these women look across the ocean and see this act of democratic justice achieved as one of the results of the great world war, while we in this country are still questioning as to whether there may be some political advantage gained or lost by one party or the other.

I do beg of you in honor of our Nation, in respect to the history which is now being made the world around, to see that - makes its contribution of ratification in such time that posterity will not blush at the hesitancy of our country to put this amendment into the Constitution.

Later in the month, to set forth the fact that special sessions were absolutely necessary in every Western State, and to get renewed confirmation of the pledges made and make clear to Western Governors that their hesitation was being interpreted throughout the country to mean opposition to the Federal Suffrage Amendment, the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association went on a Western tour. Her schedule included sixteen conferences in twelve States with “Wake up America“ as the key-note of each, and an appeal to each State to be the one to ratify. Calls for special sessions followed quickly in California, North Dakota, Colorado, Oregon and Nevada.

For weeks the attention of the entire country had been focussed on California, the largest and most influential Western State which had gained woman suffrage during the last ten years. William D. Stephens was Governor, a man who had gained prominence as a suffrage advocate in 1910, when the issue was in doubt and other political leaders refused to speak.

Late in October he sent the following telegram to seven Western Governors: “. . . We can perform a worthy and effective act if the Far Western Governors and Legislatures will present to the women of the West and of the nation a Thanksgiving present by ratifying the amendment. I am asking the Governors of Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington to join me in a group calling extra sessions before November 27, 1919. Will you call if the others will do so?“

Colorado and Nevada returned favorable replies. Oregon was not heard from. Governors Carey of Wyoming, Campbell of Arizona, Lazzarola of New Mexico, and Hart of Washington gave reasons why to them a special session was not advisable, the latter saying, “I have no power to limit the duration of a special session and doubt the wisdom therefor unless the necessity clearly appears.“

Nothing daunted, a week later Governor Stephens sent telegrams to Governors of fourteen Middle West and Eastern States saying: “California, Colorado and Nevada will have special sessions in November. Other Western States may also call. Will you not join with us to hasten the day that will give our nation the benefit of the vote of its women citizens? We realize how greatly the voting of the women has benefited California. We believe it will be of like value in the nation. I earnestly ask your co-operation.“

California's special session was called for November I, “for the exclusive consideration of the Federal Amendment.“ Five minutes after the resolution was read in the Senate it was adopted. In the House only two men voted against it-Carlton W. Green of San Luis Obispo and Robert Madison of Sonoma, the former because of the color question and the latter on account “of the expense of an unnecessary call for which we gain nothing.“

In Maine almost insuperable obstacles were overcome before a special session could be called. There had been only six special sessions since Maine became a State in 1820. The woman suffrage amendment had been defeated in 1917 by a vote of two to one; the State Supreme Court had unanimously decided that the presidential suffrage given by legislative enactment of 1918 must be referred to the voters and the Governor had sent out a proclamation for the vote to be taken September 13, 1920.[3]* Although the State Republican Convention had gone on record in March for immediate ratification of the Federal Suffrage Amendment, there was much opposition to action until after the result of the vote on presidential suffrage had been determined. In October it became apparent that other matters needed legislative action and Governor Carl E. Milliken issued the call for November 4. Thereupon the Men's Anti-Suffrage Committee of Maine circularized the Legislature in an effort to prevent action. They were “amazed that ratification should be considered while a referendum on presidential suffrage was pending“ and asked “whether or not the law of this State is to be respected?“

The Kennebec Journal replied in part:

“We apprehend that the attempt of our anti-suffrage friends to suspend the functions of and dictate to the constitutional tribunal entrusted with the power and duty of settling this great question will not be taken very seriously. The world moves and Maine will move with it.“

Maine moved. Both Houses ratified on November 5, but in the House there were only three votes to spare.

In December it seemed necessary to call upon the political parties to speed up again the campaign for ratification. Before the passage of the Federal Suffrage Amendment there had been decided opposition to suffrage action within the ranks of both major parties. After the passage each was determined that if woman suffrage had to come the other should not have the credit for it. Both parties had maneuvered against each other on this question for many years and the finish of the ratification campaign found them still maneuvering.

At the urgent request of the National Suffrage Association both Republican and Democratic National Committees passed resolutions recommending that special sessions be held in order that women might be assured a vote in the early spring primaries. Three ratifications followed in December-those of North Dakota, South Dakota and Colorado.

In North Dakota the chances of ratification were for a time imperiled because the dominant party, the Non-Partisan League, could not forget that North Dakota women, with their school suffrage, had elected to the superintendency of Public Instruction the only nominee who was not a League candidate. However, the suffragists were so successful in pleading the abstract justice of their cause that Governor Frazer called a special session for November 25. Both House and Senate approved the ratification resolution.

South Dakota's case was unusual. The State had had only two special sessions in thirty years. Governor Peter Norbeck, who intended to call a special session in 1920, did not feel justified in calling one in 1919 also. The conditions under which he was willing to act were that 51 per cent of the South Dakota legislators should agree to attend the session at their own expense and without the usual per diem; promise not to vote for reimbursement at the session; act only on ratification and that favorably. The women must secure the pledges. This was an enormous task, but the women undertook it. Answers to their poll were slowly coming in when the president of the South Dakota auxiliary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association discovered a better way. The Richards Primary Law, carried November, 1919, provided that on the second Tuesday in December so-called proposal men, representing the parties in the various counties, should meet at the State capital to prepare platforms and to propose candidates to be voted on at the March primaries. The public announcement indicated that many legislators would act as proposal men. The Republican, Democratic and Non-Partisan Conventions were also called on that date. The suffragists recognized this as a psychological moment when almost the whole Legislature would be on hand in Pierre, and readily obtained the consent of the Governor to call a special session if it could be done with no expense to the State. The suffragists then interviewed legislators and entreated them to go to Pierre at their own expense. Pledges to do this were signed by a majority, and, to comply with the three-day time limit, the call was issued on Saturday, November 30, at three o'clock for Tuesday, December third, at 7 P.M.

For thirty-six hours telegraph and telephone lines hummed as the effort was made to reach legislators in the remotest parts of the State. The snow was heavy, the roads almost impassable, but the men came from all directions. One legislator used up three automobiles getting to the train from his home, many miles from the railroad; while another rushed from Minneapolis to Huron, called to his wife to send his grip and just caught the train for Pierre. South Dakota had a unique ratification. It was the only State to hold a midnight special session and ratify between supper and breakfast.

In Colorado, as in so many other States, the question of the expense of an extra session was paramount. Colorado women did not intend that this should serve as an excuse for failure to ratify. The Colorado auxiliary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association told Governor Oliver H. Shoup that if he would call an extra session their members would furnish all the necessary clerks and pages. The Governor replied that unless the suffragists would raise $15,000 for the entire expense of the extra session it would not be called. However, as in other States, reluctance was overcome by continued agitation, and the discovery that the cost of special sessions was not so exorbitant. The Governor finally called the session for December 8. The resolution passed both Houses unanimously, having been introduced in the Senate by Senator Agnes Riddle.

Six months had gone by since the submission of the Federal Suffrage Amendment and twenty-two States had ratified. The inevitable legal tests now began.


* In December, 1919, the convention that was to rewrite the Nebraska constitution met in Lincoln. It was provided that women should vote on the acceptance of the amended constitution, and that a full suffrage clause which was inserted should go into effect as soon as the adoption of the constitution was announced by the Governor. Before the vote was taken on the constitution, September 21, 1920, the Federal Suffrage Amendment had been ratified. Thus Nebraska women, enfranchised by the Federal Amendment, went to the polls and voted on their own State enfranchisement. With their votes the constitution received 65,483 ayes to 15,416 nays.


The Governor and a Council of Five in New Hampshire have full power to call a special session at any time, “if the welfare of the State should require the same.“


* Although the Federal Suffrage Amendment was proclaimed as adopted on August 26, 1920, there was no way in which the Maine referendum on presidential suffrage could be legally omitted from the ballot. Therefore Maine women, possessed by then of full suffrage, went to the polls on September 13, 1920, and voted on this partial suffrage State measure. The official count showed ayes 88,080; nays 30,462-Maine women's answer to the question, “Do women want to vote?“

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