Women's Suffrage and the Constitution: Chapter IV

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Chapter IV. The Story of the 1916 Referenda

Constitutional amendments were submitted to the voters of the three states in 1916, namely, Iowa, where the vote was taken June 5th on Primary Day; South Dakota and West Virginia, where the vote was taken at the general election in November. More than one influential newspaper editorially discussed the returns with the comment that “the people“ of three states had refused to extend the suffrage to women. An investigation unveils some ugly facts and raises significant questions.

In 1882 a prohibition constitutional amendment was adopted by a large majority in Iowa and was promptly set aside by the supreme court upon a technicality. The wet and dry question has been a vexed political issue ever since. The state now has prohibition by statutory enactment. A constitutional amendment is pending, having passed the Legislature of 1914, and is due to pass the Legislature of 1916. The “wets“ believing that women would generally support the proposed prohibition amendment were extremely active in opposing the suffrage amendment. Although the suffragists kept their question distinctly separate from prohibition, the wet and dry issue, it was generally admitted, would prove a determining factor.

Every judge of the Supreme Court, the United States Senators, the Governor, most of the men prominent in Republican and Democratic politics, most of the clergymen, most of the press and every woman's state organization espoused the suffrage amendment.

Men familiar with Iowa politics advised the suffrage campaigners early and late and all the time between that it was unnecessary to conduct an intensive campaign as “everybody believed in it.“

Yet despite this omnipresent optimism thousands of women gave every possibility of their lives for months before to arouse public sentiment, instruct and acquaint the men and women of the state concerning the question.

The amendment was lost by about 10,000 votes. Were four of the ninety-nine counties (Dubuque, Clinton, Scott and Des Moines counties) lying along the Mississippi River, not included in the returns, the state would have been carried for woman suffrage. It is instructive to inquire what kind of population occupied the four counties which defeated it. The following table gives the answer:

Iowa Counties
Total Population
Total Native Parentage
Total Foreign and Foreign Parentage
Total German, Austrian, Russian and of such Parentage
Des Moines

The vote on woman suffrage was 162,679 yes and 173,020 no. The “yes vote“ of the above four counties was 8,061; the “no vote“ 18,941. Subtract these totals from the totals of the state vote and 154,618 “yes“ and 154,079 “no“ remains, giving a majority of 539 for woman suffrage.

Once more in the history of suffrage referenda a foreign and colonized population decided the issue. Was the election an honest one? That is a question of interest to Iowa just now. The returns revealed some suspicious facts. Nearly 30,000 more votes were cast on the suffrage proposition than in the primary. Where did they come from? The president of the W.C.T.U., Mrs Ida B. Wise Smith, employed a detective after the election. His investigation covered forty-four counties and was not confined to those wherein woman suffrage was lost. The findings have not been given to the public in their entirely, but they were conclusive enough to cause an injunction suit to be filed against the Board of Elections and the Legislature to restrain them from accepting the official returns.

Registration was necessary for the amendment, not for the primary, yet thousands of unregistered votes apparently were cast upon the amendment. All good election laws provide that a definite number of ballots shall be officially issued to each precinct; that the number of those deposited in the ballot box, the number spoiled and those unused shall not only tally with the number received, but the unused ones must be counted, sealed, labelled and returned with the certificate recording the count. This is the law of Iowa; but the report of the investigation, as given to the press, shows that in thirty-five counties out of the forty-four investigated no tally list was used and there was nothing by which to check in order to determine the correctness of the number on the certificate. In many cases no unused ballots were returned. The poll lists did not tally with the number of votes and even a recount could not reveal whether fraud or carelessness had led to irregularity.

Despite the fact that the Iowa law provides that a definite number of ballots and the same number of each kind is to be distributed to each precinct the separate suffrage ballots in a number of cases were reported by election officials as not having arrived until the voting had been in progress for some time; and in others they gave out an hour before the polls closed.

Forty-seven varieties of violations of the election law are alleged to have been committed. Do these indicate wilful fraud of mere ignorance and carelessness? Just now no one seems prepared to answer. Meantime Iowa, one of the most intelligent and progressive states in the nation, stands at the bar of public opinion accused of incapacity to conduct an honest election. How she will defend herself, what reparation she will make to her women, and what steps she will take to insure clean elections and better enforcement of her election law in the future are problems which await the Legislature. That body cannot refuse to take action of some without inviting the suspicion that her legislators prefer conditions which lend themselves to the base uses of election manipulators whenever they may care to avail themselves of them.

On November 7, 1916, woman suffrage and prohibition amendments were voted upon in South Dakota. It was the first time these two questions have gone to referendum in the same election and the results furnish interesting data for comparison.

Certain facts tel a story which should make progressive, patriotic Americans and fair-minded Congressmen reflect.

Prohibition was carried by a majority of 11,469; woman suffrage was lost by a majority of 4,664. Prohibition was lost in thirteen counties; in one of these, Lawrence, which lies in the hearth of the mining country, prohibition was lost by two votes, and woman suffrage was carried.

In all the others a large foreign population was the dominant power. Had nine of the sixty-eight counties of the state not been included in the returns woman suffrage would have been carried.

The total “yes“ vote on woman suffrage was 51,687; the “no“ vote 56,351. [1]* The total “yes“ vote of these nine counties was 4,877; the “no“ vote was 10,569. Subtracting these county totals from the state totals the record would stand 46,810 “yes“ votes and 45,782 “no“ votes.

Who then are the voters of nine counties who kept the women of an entire state disfranchised? The following table presents the answer:

Total Population
Total Native Parentage
Total Foreign and Foreign Parentage
Total German, Austrian Russian, or of Such Parentage
Bon Homme.
Charles Mix.

The large “no“ vote in several counties was due to the same character of population. The total population is 583,888, the population of foreign birth or foreign parentage is 243,835. South Dakota is one of the eight remaining states where foreigners may vote on their “first papers“ and citizenship is not a qualification for a vote.

The returns offer still other food for reflection. Hutchinson county, for example, carried prohibition and lost woman suffrage. It gave 584 dry votes; 510 wet votes. It gave 432 “yes“ votes on woman suffrage and 1,583 “no“ votes. Thus 921 more votes were cast on the suffrage proposition than on the prohibition question. The people in this county are German-Russians and exceedingly ignorant. Apparently they were not intelligent enough to be lined up to vote “no“ on both questions. Is it not likely that these votes were intended to be “wet“ and that they made a mistake and picked No. 6 instead of No. 7? If not, why not?

The largest group of the foreign population of these counties are German-Russians. They migrated from Germany and found a home in Russia some 230 or more years ago, in order to escape conscription. When Russia began to enforce conscription about 1888 the entire group came to America and settled in colonies in the Western states which at the time offered free lands. They were totally illiterate then. They had not progressed as Germans in their own country had done but being clannish had remained at the point of development reached at the date of their migration. They are still clannish and have not yet escaped from the mental habits of the Middle Ages. These are the men who have denied American women the vote in South Dakota. That the women of South Dakota in very large numbers wanted the vote no one questions. During the campaign six women in Sioux Falls published an appeal to voters not to support the amendment as they did not wish to vote. Shortly after an appeal to the voters of the same city was published and was signed by 3,000 women. In every county of the state the women manifested their interest by doing all they knew how to do.

West Virginia was the first Southern state to submit a referendum on woman suffrage and the vote was taken November 7, 1916. The amendment was defeated by the largest proportional majority any suffrage amendment ever received. Unlike Iowa and South Dakota, where all the educated classes with notable exceptions believe in woman suffrage, West Virginia probably has many conscientious doubters. Arguments and excuses which did service in the West twenty-five years ago were brought forward as though just formulated. The illiteracy of the state is appallingly high and the illiterate is universally an antiwomen suffragist.

The ever present prohibition issue again played an important if not a determining part. A prohibition law was voted in by an immense majority in 1912, but the undismayed “wets“ propose to secure a resubmission if possible. They apparently regarded the woman suffrage amendment as an outer defense to be taken before the march on the main prohibition fort could be begun; and every “wet,“ high and low, was on duty. The “drys“ who would do well to study Napoleon's rule of strategy, that is, “find out what your enemy doesn't want you to do, and then do it,“ were much disturbed as to what St. Paul would think were he here, and concluded not to be over hasty about giving the women the vote.

At the Democratic convention an anti woman suffragist spoke. The applause in the gallery and in the standing groups filling the outside aisles was uproarious and clearly represented an organized, carefully planted claque. The leaders were an ex-brewer, an ex-saloonkeeper and the chief liquor lobbyist of the state. It was evident that they were there to intimidate the party, and they did. The Democrats threw a bouquet to the women in the form of a plank and then quietly repudiated it. Practically the same thing happened in the Republican convention. They, too, endorsed a plank and “double-crossed.“ There was apparently no difference between the two dominant parties on that score. Men who had always been pronounced suffragists weakly confessed themselves afraid to speak for woman suffrage in the campaign lest votes be lost for their party. Political campaigners who went into the state, with the exception of Senator Borah and Raymond Robins, were told not to mention suffrage, and they obeyed. The wets apparently had the state literally by the throat and in order to save votes the great fundamental principle of “government by the people“ was refused a public hearing. Election Day came. Women poll workers reported from many parts of the state that drunken hoodlums were marched in line into the precinct, saying boldly that they were going to vote “agin the--women.“ The women workers testified with remarkable unanimity that their opposition was chiefly “riffraff and illiterate negroes and that it was under the direction of well-known 'wets.'“ Even an excise commissioner under pay of the National Government worked against woman suffrage all day in one precinct.

A premonition of what might happen appeared in September, when Judge John M. Woods of the circuit court instructed a grand jury to investigate the political situation in Berkely county. He declared, as reported by the press, that election conditions had become intolerable and that in his judgment one-third of the votes in the county were purchasable. Elections, he said, had degenerated into “an auction wherein offices went to the highest bidder.“

It was not surprising, therefore, that the cry of fraud arose from many localities as soon as the election was over, and was so insistent that the Governor called a special session of the Legislature for the announced purpose of an investigation into the charges. Colonization, bribery,, repeating and every known form of corruption was alleged to have been employed. One of the chief newspapers of the state declared that the election scandals had surpassed all that had gone before.

The Legislature met but the Governor did not proceed with his proposed investigation. No explanation was given, but to the onlooker it was clear that one of two reasons, or perhaps both, was the cause of silence on the part of the chief lawmaking body of the state-either the lifted curtain would reveal “the pot calling the kettle black,“ or so extensive and noxious a mass of corruption was known to exist that no means were available for correction of the wrongs perpetrated.

That money was used many women were willing to testify. For what purpose it was used, who furnished it and who were the actual bribers were questions not so readily answered. In one city it was reported “that warrants were out after the elect of the city and that this was true in nearly every ward of the city.“ The warrants were based upon the alleged use of money.

Other women poll workers reported that men boldly asked whether they would be paid, and if so, how much. When they found there was no reward for suffrage votes they scornfully but frankly confessed that they could do better on the other side. Irregularities were numerous. The amendment was ordered by the state officials printed on the main ticket, but one county so far disobeyed instructions as to print the amendment on a separate ballot, yet the vote was accepted. The returns on the amendment were withheld for many days and in several counties for weeks.

A few straw from the election show the way the wind blew in West Virginia. In only four counties is the per cent. of illiteracy among males of voting age less than 6 per cent. The returns in these counties are found in the following table:

Percent Illiteracy Voting Age Males
For Suffrage Amendment
Against Suffrage Amendment
2 to 1 against
1 1/3 to 1 against
1¼ to 1 against

The returns from the five counties having the highest per cent. of illiteracy are as follows:

Percent Illiteracy Voting Age Males
For Suffrage Amendment
Against Suffrage Amendment
7 to 1 against
3 lacking 6 votes to 1 against
3¼ to 1 against
3 2/3 to 1 against
3 1/3 to 1 against

In the first group the negro vote is under 5 per cent. of the whole. In the second tis is also true of Boone and Lincoln counties. The number of negro males of voting age is nearly 6 per cent. in Logan county, 11.2 per cent. in Mingo county and 34.1 per cent. in McDowell county.

It is a matter of interest to observe that the counties giving the largest majority against were Clay, 6 to 1; Grant, 7 to 1; Hardy, 7 2/3 to 1; Lincoln, 7 to 1; Raleigh, 5 to 1, and that in none of these is the negro male population of voting age in excess of 5 per cent, White illiteracy is high, the lowest in this group being that found in Grant county, 13-3 per cent.

Had there been an honest election and a fair count in West Virginia, it is possible, even probable, that woman suffrage would have been defeated, but the fact remains that no human being can know that, since the amendment went down to defeat in an election that can only be described as “The Shame of West Virginia.“

In all three states the pending amendments were caught in the toils of the “wet and dry“ issue. The “wets“ obsessed by the idea that woman suffrage is “next door to prohibition“ used their entire machinery to defeat the amendments, while the “drys“ regarded the amendments as distinctly separate questions. These conditions may be regarded as the inevitable hazards of a campaign. It is, however, not at all cleat that the amendments were defeated in any one of the three states by the honest “will of the majority.“ In none of them were women permitted to serve as watchers over their amendment. In Iowa well established proof of wilful or careless violations of laws throws doubt over the returns, while in West Virginia the suspicion of fraud rests upon the entire election. In Iowa four and in South Dakota nine counties colonized by people of foreign birth or parentage deprived the women of the state of their vote.

A Federal amendment ratified by the legislatures of the several states would secure to the women of South Dakota and Iowa the rights for which American and Americanized men have voted. The entire western or most American part of South Dakota has been twice carried for suffrage, that is, in 1914 and 1916. One county, Harding, adjacent to Wyoming, has been carried for woman suffrage in the six referenda on the question, the first one being held in 1890.

The only real argument against the Federal amendment thus far advanced is that one group of states which want woman suffrage may force it upon another group which does not want it. That argument works both ways. A group of counties which want woman suffrage may be deprived of it for years because another group of un-Americanized, foreign-born citizens do not want it. The first is said to be the principle of “American sovereignty,“ the second may fairly be called the principle of “foreign sovereignty.“


* The figures here used are those given to the press by the County Boards of Election. The final returns were not available.

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