Women's Suffrage: The Story of Ohio

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
by Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler
Illinois: A Turning Point
The Story of Iowa

The Story of Ohio

The States of Ohio and Iowa furnish a curious comparative study for the suffrage record. Ohio was a wet State wherein a powerful movement was urging its people to “go dry.“ Iowa was a dry State wherein a wellnigh controlling force was urging it to “go wet.“ In both, yearly political campaigns were waged by the prohibition forces and the liquor interests. In Ohio referenda were held under the county local option law which provided that when a majority of the voters had so indicated the county became dry. In Iowa the referenda were held under the Mulct law which provided that when a majority of the voters so declared the territory concerned might become wet.

Standing at opposing poles of their own contest, the two factors, wet and dry, had exactly the same effect in nullifying the woman suffrage appeal. The wets were opposed to suffrage, but trying to keep their opposition subrosa. The drys were in sympathy with suffrage but restraining their sympathy from open expression lest they overload their own question. Balancing between wets and drys swung the political parties, afraid, because of the large blocks of voters on each side, to be committed to any phase of the questions at issue between liquor forces and prohibition forces. So that the women of both States were reduced to the position of political supplicants with no organized bodies to support them. Their organized friends were all muzzled.

In Ohio, despite the desperate efforts of suffragists to present their question to the public upon its own merits, it was so inextricably drawn into the more bitterly fought “wet“ and “dry“ contest that it was never possible to do so.

Ohio was referred to by both sides of the controversy as “the cradle of prohibition.“ It was here that the woman's “crusade“ was initiated, out of which issued the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (1874). The Prohibition party (organized 1869) had had an energetic branch in Ohio, and the first Anti-Saloon League was organized in Ohio in 1893, and for 25 years thereafter assumed directorship over all prohibition campaigns. While the two preceding temperance forces had been drawn almost entirely from the church, the Anti-Saloon League attracted large numbers of business men. before 1910, county, municipal and township local option laws had been enacted, local campaigns conducted, and a considerable portion of the State outside the urban regions had “gone dry.“

On the other hand, Ohio was one of the seven largest brewing States, standing fifth in the list.“[1]* In 1912, when for the first time the wet and dry contest was sent to the voters of the State for arbitrament, Ohio listed 125 brewers, 14,210 retail liquor dealers (or one dealer to each 69 men in the State) and 4,742,665 barrels, as the State production of fermented liquors. These forces, united in support of a common plan, composed a powerful organization that could, and did, produce nearly a million and a half dollars for a year's campaign purposes.

It was in Ohio that Percy Andreae had first carried out the plan of the organization of allied interests which before 1913 had spent a million dollars to perfect an organization warranted to produce political results with “unerring accuracy.“ It was here too that the brewers first aided the German-American Alliance to extend its organized voting strength in support of the liquor cause.

The head of the brewers' State political committee reported, in secret session in 1908, that the liquor candidate for Governor had been elected, “the result of months of organized effort on the part of all our interests and the Ohio Personal Liberty League, the Manufacturers' and Dealers' Clubs of Cleveland and Cincinnati ... the Ohio Traveling Men's Liberty League. The result is very gratifying because it marks the collapse of the Anti-Saloon League as a factor in Ohio politics.“[2]*

The Ohio constitution had not been revised since 1851 and in 1910 all factions and both dominant parties agreed upon the necessity of such revision. The Legislature submitted the question, the voters ordered the convention, the delegates were elected, and the convention was held in 1912.

Concerning that election, Mr. Beis of Ohio reported [3]† at a secret conference of the brewers in 1915 as follows:

“In 1912 an election was held under a resolution which was introduced by our friends in the Legislature. . . . The Andreae organization so called was put into the field there. We selected a majority of the delegates to that convention. That convention wrote licenses into the constitution of the State. Something that no other State has done.“

Ohio dated its suffrage organization from 1850 and that portion of the State known as the Western Reserve was renowned for its liberal and progressive tendencies. Yet it was not until 1894 that Ohio women were granted school suffrage. An attempt to repeal even this law had been made in 1899 but had been thwarted through the influence of a petition bearing the names of 40,000 Ohio citizens.

Suffragists had made a thorough canvass of the State and knew before the Ohio constitutional convention met in 1912 that very nearly a majority of delegates would support the submission of a suffrage amendment. The directors of the suffrage campaign declared that “interests, vicious and commercial, opposed the suffrage submission at every turn,“ yet in the end it was accomplished, passing the convention by a vote of 76 to 34 on March 7, 1912. The paragraph defining voters in the original constitution read: “Every white male citizen, etc.“ The proposed amendment eliminated the words “white male.“ Although Ohio Negroes had not been denied the vote claimed for them under the Fifteenth Amendment, the word “white“ had remained in the Ohio constitution, which thus nominally forbade what the federal constitution granted! The liquor lobbyists, in ugly temper because the suffrage amendment had been allowed to go to the voters, lost no time in planning a strategy to prevent a favorable vote.

Suddenly they became deeply solicitous for the rights of the Negro whom they found to be unworthily tied to the “women's apron strings,“ and in the hope of entirely alienating the Negro vote from support of the suffrage amendment, not a difficult task, they secured the submission of a separate amendment that merely eliminated the word “white.“ For their own purposes they were able to secure an amendment providing for the licensing of the sale of liquor. Their next effort was to place the suffrage amendment alone in a column next to the liquor amendment which, at the request of those promoting it, occupied a column by itself. Thus arranged, ignorant voters could have been easily instructed to mark one amendment for defeat and the other for victory. But the women were able to foil this plan, and the suffrage amendment was placed on the ballot with other amendments.

The convention also submitted an initiative and referendum amendment, which was supported by all reform forces in the State and not vigorously opposed by anyone. through the submission of these four amendments, the convention had neatly balanced the distribution of political favors, granting two amendments the liquor forces wanted, and two that they did not want.

The vote was to be taken at a special election on September 3, 1912, and for three months prior thereto a vigorous and exciting campaign was waged by all interested groups.

The Ohio Woman Suffrage Association reported that it had just $23 on hand when the suffrage measure passed the convention, but it closed the campaign with $3,000 with which to “carry on.“ “More than fifty workers came into Ohio and remained for varying lengths of time. . . . Picnics, county fairs, family reunions, circuses, teachers' institutes, summer schools, all furnished ready-made audiences, while tens of thousands of men and women were gathered together on street corners in the cities, on the public squares, in the small towns, before the general store at the country cross-roads, night after night, by our dauntless campaigners.“

The campaign developed such strength that predictions that the suffrage amendment would carry were generally made. One prominent politician, mayor of a large city, basing his estimate on careful investigation, predicted that the measure would carry by 40,000. The press and friends of the measure generally grew confident that the amendment would be carried.

But election returns revealed some curious facts. The amendment to eliminate the word “white“ was lost, the wets having given it no election support. The anomaly resulted that by vote of the people “white“ remained in the State Constitution as a qualification for voters, although in reality the right of colored men to vote was and remains unquestioned. The initiative and referendum amendment, being opposed by no one, and supported by many, was carried. The liquor license amendment was carried by a majority of 84,536.[4]* The suffrage amendment was lost by a majority of 87,456. Its total vote was 586,296-249,420 voting yes and 336,876 voting no. the total vote cast on the suffrage amendment was 124,000 votes more than the total vote cast on the liquor amendment. Had each of the 14,000 retail liquor dealers secured twenty-five votes, according to the usual plan, the total would have composed the 336,876 noes. With the aid of the allied forces, this “systematized voting“ would not have been difficult of achievement.

The allied wets did not hesitate to accept responsibility for the result. “At a meeting of the German-American Alliance held in Youngstown, a short time after election, John Schwab, the president, in his address boasted as one of the achievements of the Alliance the defeat of the suffrage amendment at the special election September 3, 1912.“[5]†

At the Fifty-third annual convention of the United States Brewers' Association held in 1913, President Ruppert repudiated the charge that the brewers were fighting woman suffrage, but acknowledged that Ohio was an exception.

After 1912 both suffragists and prohibitionists saw hope in the new initiative and referendum law, since they could now initiate a referendum of their respective causes to the voters without facing the problem of consent from a Legislature badly frightened by the big totals of votes rolled up on both sides of these two questions. In 1913, the president of the Ohio Woman Suffrage Association approached the president of the Anti-Saloon League with the plea that suffragists should be permitted to conduct a suffrage amendment campaign unembarrassed by any prohibition measure. the request was granted and suffragists hopefully undertook a house-to-house canvass for the 130,000 voters' signatures required by the law to secure the referendum.

The law was new, and authorities differed as to the procedure. An attempt was made to secure an official opinion, but with delay here and obstruction there an entire year passed before the petitions approved in form by the Attorney-General were ready for circulation. More than the required 130,000 men voters wrote their names on the suffragists' petition, in the presence of a circulator who then on oath declared the signatures genuine. This work was done by women volunteers and every county was represented in the total. In July, 1914, the petitions were presented to the Secretary of State, a representative from each of the 88 counties bearing its petition. The work involved had been enormous-but the result was a free expression of public opinion.

When the liquor interests comprehended that woman suffrage was certainly going to the voters with no other entangling question, they hastily held a conference with Mr. Andreae at Cincinnati and determined to throw confusion into the election by initiating a repeal of the county local option law, under the title “Home Rule Amendment.“

The entire force in the Andreae department was withdrawn from various fields and thrown into the State. These workers, “augmenting the force already at the disposal of the Ohio campaign manager, secured 304,000 voters' signatures to the petitions[6]* in less than thirty days' time.“

The Anti-Saloon League, considering that their pledge to the suffragists should not be kept under these circumstances, circulated petitions for a referendum on a prohibition amendment. Thus woman suffrage, full prohibition and repeal of county local option (called Home Rule Amendment) were placed on the same ballot for 1914. An intensive campaign was conducted on each of the three amendments by its respective friends. the wets again waged their campaign against the two reform amendments with the same fund and the same workers, while suffragists and prohibitionists conducted as always an unconnected campaign. The prohibition and suffrage amendments were lost;[7]* the Home Rule Amendment was carried by 46,000 majority.

In 1916 Ohio suffragists turned their attention to local campaigns, and after a hard campaign won municipal suffrage in East Cleveland on a referendum.

Meanwhile the national Republican and Democratic party platforms of 1916 had adopted suffrage planks and the two Ohio party conventions, never before brave enough to express an opinion on woman suffrage, confirmed the national platforms. Supported by these platforms, the Legislature of 1917 extended presidential suffrage to Ohio women. The dry House passed the measure on February 1 by a vote of 72 to 50. The wet Senate passed it on February 14 by a vote of 20 to 16. The action was at once recognized by the old foe as a dangerous wedge, and soon a curious thing happened: No other than the wet leader of the Senate introduced a bill providing for the submission of a full suffrage amendment. Now ensued an utterly anomalous situation: opponents of woman suffrage urging the Legislature to submit a bill for full suffrage for women, advocates of woman suffrage trying to block any such submission. None but those on the inside could possibly have understood the mystery of the motives at work. But on the inside there was no mystery at all.

The opponents of woman suffrage had two objects in view: one to obscure the issue; one, the ultimate rejection of the women's presidential suffrage bill. The suffragists, on their side, had a clear perspective. For fifty years they had been trying to get the Ohio Legislature to submit a suffrage amendment, but now the time for it had gone by. Full woman suffrage was coming and coming fast by the federal route. In Washington a federal suffrage amendment was drawing near to victory in Congress. Ohio women wanted their energies left free to help speed ratification on its way. They did not want, at this critical moment in the federal fortunes of suffrage, to be engulfed in the whirlpool of political trickery within the State that always had engulfed them when woman suffrage was brought to the Ohio polls. Yet here were the wets proposing submission of a State suffrage measure. The women antis asked for a hearing. The women antis and the wet men occupied seats en bloc and both pleaded for submission; the suffragists opposed. The bill was passed in the Senate February 14, 19 to 17, but the opposition of suffragists stayed its course in the House.

Just within the time limit prescribed by the law, ninety days, petitions for a referendum were filed on presidential suffrage. The suspicious suffragists immediately began a thorough investigation of the petitions. The first to be examined were those of Trumbull County. Of fifteen petitions, containing 584 names, it was discovered that twelve were circulated by proprietors of saloons. Five of these men, not being able to write, had made their marks in attesting the petition. No petition was circulated in dry sections of the county, and many irregularities were discovered. This preliminary examination gave direction for other county investigations. Alert groups of women in forty-four counties searched the voters' rolls for names appearing on the petitions and took note of other possible sources of fraud. The petitions to the county courts of Common Pleas presented by these women showed a remarkable uniformity. Thousands of names signed to the referendum petition as registered voters were not to be found on the poll lists and the same name was signed more than once. Affidavits that sponsors for petitions were volunteer workers when facts indicated that this was unlikely was a common charge. For example, “six petitions in Clinton County were circulated by a man who has no visible means of support, has frequently been employed by the wets, and had been arrested for bootlegging.“[8]*

“Between 75 and 90 per cent of the petitions were circulated by saloonkeepers, bartenders, brewers, and recognized county wet leaders“ was the testimony of the president of the Ohio auxiliary to the National Suffrage Association. Signatures were secured in saloons, German clubs and other wet centres. Hundreds of petitions were kept so closely within saloon circles that business men, lawyers, doctors, teachers, did not learn that they were in circulation, and they were finally filed without the name of a single representative man of the community.

All this chicanery resulted in one advantage for the women: it aroused Ohio opinion to a demand for a square deal to such an extent that when the women of Columbus appealed to the men voters for the municipal suffrage, they got it.

So notorious had become the control of both dominant political parties by wet influences, that dry Democrats held a special convention in Columbus in May, 1917, and the dry Republicans in June. Suffrage representatives attended both conventions for the purpose of calling attention to the fact that the petitions filed on presidential suffrage were “reeking with fraud.“ The presentation of facts was unnecessary, as the press had already made them common knowledge. Resolutions were introduced by delegates and passed by both conventions, urging the rejection of the petitions.

Meanwhile the suffragists carried their evidence to election boards, which, after examining the evidence, referred them to the county courts. They were able to secure a hearing in four counties only, Scioto, Trumbull, Mahoning and Cuyahoga. Out of 9,964 names in these counties, the courts threw out 8,661 as fraudulent! The women in charge of the investigation insisted that a similar portion would have been thrown out in every county. Yet for various excuses other courts would not grant the hearings. In the words of the Akron Times:

“If there is anything that should strengthen the cause of woman suffrage in Ohio it is the disclosure that the petitions of the antis for a referendum on the Reynolds Act abound in frauds. Fraud is a confession of a weak cause. It ought to condemn its perpetrators in the eyes of all fair-minded voters.“

An attempt was then made to lay the entire evidence before the Secretary of State. He too refused the suffragists a hearing and, to the lasting dishonor of Ohio politics, the question went to referendum upon a petition “reeking with fraud.“

In their circular to the voters of the State, the suffragists thus summed up their case:

“Do these petitions represent the people? No! They represent a special interest. Five hundred and eighty-one petitions were circulated by saloonkeepers and bartenders; 246 were circulated by employees of the breweries, the Personal Liberty League (a wet propaganda group) and by others more closely allied with the liquor interests. This referendum is the work of the organized liquor ring. Nearly one-quarter of all the names were obtained in Cincinnati alone (the great brewing city). Circulators had to resort to fraud and forgery to get the petitions filed. Though these petitions were formally filed by the Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, not one woman circulated a petition.“

By November 6, 1917, while over the boundary line New York State voters were giving a tremendous majority for full suffrage for women, the wets had succeeded so well in organizing a vote against presidential suffrage in Ohio that they defeated it by 144,000 majority. The prohibition amendment was also lost, but with so small a majority as to fill the drys with hope and the wets with dread.

In 1918, the drys initiated a prohibition amendment. The wets, following their usual tactics of a countering proposition, initiated a constitutional amendment to the effect “that the people reserve to themselves the legislative power of the referendum on the action of the General Assembly ratifying any proposed amendment to the constitution of the United States.“

It may not be easily evident on its face but what this meant was that the Ohio people were to take precedence over the constitution of the United States. That constitution provides that the Legislatures of the different States shall have the power of accepting or rejecting any federal amendment submitted by Congress. Here was a state constitutional amendment proposing that a State's people and not its Legislature should have these powers of ratification. It was aimed, of course, at the federal prohibition and suffrage amendments, the first of which had by then been submitted by the Congress, while it was already apparent that the submission of the other would soon follow.

The Ohio Woman Suffrage Association recognized the significance of this measure and attempted to arouse prohibition opposition to it. But the prohibitionists were completely absorbed by the demands of their own campaign and refused to regard the referendum amendment as worthy of attention. The National American Woman Suffrage Association came to the aid of its Ohio auxiliary and financed the attempt to prevent the question from being placed on the ballot. The suit was brought in the name of a leading citizen of Columbus, Edgar L. Weinland, who as taxpayer protested against the unnecessary expenditure of money for printing ballots and other costs to provide for putting the question to the voters, since it was clearly unconstitutional. The brief presented by the attorney for the National Suffrage Association, Mr. Frank Davis, Jr., set forth precisely the same plea which a year later led the Federal Supreme Court to declare this law unconstitutional, but the Ohio Supreme Court avoided a decision on the ground that it had “no jurisdiction in advance of the election.“

At the November election (1918) the State prohibition amendment won by a majority of 25,000; while the amendment making referenda on federal amendments possible won by a majority of 193,000.

With generous though secret contributions to political party funds and with their known ability to deliver votes of organizations one way or the other, as their interest was aroused, “the Liquor Ring“ had for years intimidated political leaders but the long and bitterly contested prohibition victory brought relief to the political situation. Conscientious men who did not endorse prohibition, accepted it as a liberation from the tentacles of the liquor incubus and breathed easier after the winning of the prohibition amendment at the Ohio polls. The 1919 Legislature of Ohio at once restored the presidential suffrage lost to women by the referendum of 1918, so that in the event of the nation's failure to complete ratification before the presidential election of 1920, Ohio women would be qualified to vote for president.

The liquor forces, however, were still unconquered. They filed a referendum petition on ratification of the prohibition amendment under the authority of the State amendment they had carried the year before, bringing it to vote in the November election of 1919. They filed petitions also to repeal the State prohibition amendment; to authorize 2.75 per cent beer; to repeal the State Enforcement Act.

Another wet and dry struggle rocked the State of Ohio from capitol to boundary. The November election of 1919 recorded that ratification of the federal prohibition amendment had been lost by a wet majority of 500 votes. The repeal of the State prohibition amendment had been defeated by a dry majority of 41,849, but the Prohibition Enforcement Act, which alone could make it effective, had also been defeated by a wet majority of 26,838, while 2.75 per cent beer had been defeated by a dry majority of 30,000. The liquor forces had won two points and the temperance forces two, and again the electorate stood bewildered by its own acts.

The wets all over the nation were elated that the ratification of prohibition in one State had been repudiated on referendum. Apparently the four wet measures were considered a sufficient undertaking for one Ohio election, for though petitions to refer the Ohio Legislature's ratification of the Federal Suffrage Amendment and the grant of presidential suffrage were also circulated by the same wet army that circulated the others, the time of filing was carefully planned so as to fall short of the required sixty days before election. This was to bring the two suffrage referenda to vote in 1920, a fact which the wets hoped would prevent a proclamation of ratification of the Federal Suffrage Amendment before the presidential election of 1920.

The suffragists, tired and defrauded, set to work, not with cheerful hope but with grim determination, to prepare for a referendum if one should come, by enrolling the women who wanted the vote as a plea to the voters.

In the midst of these endeavors an event occurred that was scarcely noted in the midst of the political, industrial and social excitement at the time. A group of Ohio suffragists stole away to the little town of Newburg. Once Newburg had been a centre of that fiery devotion to free thought and human liberty which had marked the early settlement of the Western Reserve. In it a vigorous suffrage organization had lifted up its voice in 1874. Women had refused to pay taxes there unless they were represented and had allowed the authorities to sell property to meet the bill. There they had offered their votes and had been refused. There this early group had planted an acorn in commemoration of their faith. The acorn had been growing for forty-five years and was now a sturdy oak. Under its branches the Newburg Memorial Association received the visiting suffragists, and together they held a service of honor for the women whose vision had seen the coming victory afar off. They listened to the stories of the fearlessness of those early workers, their hope and their faith. Led by the grandsons of the pioneers, they laid wreaths upon their graves. In the little chapel where President Garfield, Lucy Stone, Theodore Parker, Louisa M. Alcott, John B. Gough and Robert Collyer had spoken, they spoke.

Forty-five years of ceaseless work lay between that movement and the beginning of the suffrage movement in Ohio. Still unfinished; and still that faith!

Wearily the women returned to the tedious and uninspiring toil of rolling up numbers of women who wanted to vote, in the event the Ohio referendum should take place. Half-heartedly they did the work, for their thoughts now centered on Washington. While they worked they were hoping and waiting for the Supreme Court of the United States to speak and declare the unconstitutionality of the Ohio amendment that had given to Ohio voters the right to supersede the federal constitution at the Ohio polls.

Exhausted by their ten years of ceaseless campaigning, prohibitionists and liquor forces also turned to the Federal Supreme Court and awaited its fateful decision.


* New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin, in the order named exceeded Ohio in quantity of fermented liquor produced.


* “Brewing and Liquor Investigation,“ Volume 1, page 836.


† Ibid., page 1191.


* The total vote was 462,186-273,361 voting yes and 188,825 voting no.


† Official report Ohio Woman Suffrage Association.


* “Brewing and Liquor Investigation,“ Volume 1, page 462.


* Total vote on suffrage amendment 853,685; against 518,295; for 335,390; lost by 182,905.


* From suffrage petition to the court praying investigation concerning the affidavit that the man was unpaid.

Sources +