Today in Feminist History: Suffragists Storm Capitol Hill

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

January 3, 1918: Two major pro-suffrage efforts today—and both greatly needed, because support for the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment is still short of having enough votes to pass both the House and Senate by the two-thirds majority required.

Long-time suffrage advocate and former President Theodore Roosevelt wrote and sent a letter today to William E. Wilcox, head of the Republican National Committee, urging him and all fellow Republicans to do everything they can to help the Anthony Amendment:

I earnestly hope that the Republican Party as such will do everything possible to get all its Representatives in Congress to vote in favor of the constitutional amendment giving women suffrage. This is no longer an academic question. The addition of New York to the suffrage column, I think, entitles us to say that as a matter of both justice and common sense the nation should no longer delay to give women suffrage. Will you let me urge as strongly as possible that there be an immediate addition to the Republican National Committee of one woman member from every suffrage State? I do hope this action can be taken.

There are presently 12 States in which women vote on exactly the same basis as men, and several more in which they can vote for President, or in Party Primaries, or have some other form of partial suffrage.

Southern Democrats, particularly those in the Senate, are solidly opposed to the suffrage amendment due to the fact that it’s race-neutral, as well as because they see it as a challenge to “States’ Rights” with 36 States “forcing their will” on the other 12, and finally because the power to enforce it would be given to Congress, not the individual States (though the latter two considerations do not seem to trouble them in regard to supporting the Prohibition Amendment). Therefore, gaining support from a high enough majority of Republicans to overcome the deficit of support among Democrats is critical. So the many efforts Col. Roosevelt has made on behalf of suffrage over the years are greatly appreciated, and this latest one will certainly help with what is certain to be a close vote in the House exactly a week from now. 

Meanwhile, suffrage advocates descended upon Congress itself today and used the first of three days of hearings on the Anthony Amendment to refute charges that “Votes for Women” supporters are not totally behind America’s war effort.

Reverend Anna Howard Shaw, who was president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1904 until 1915, addressed the latest campaign strategy of the “antis.” They’re now claiming that if the vote were to suddenly be extended to a huge number of inexperienced voters who had a sympathy for human suffering, it might cause a weakening of our war effort, a less than total victory for the forces of democracy, and therefore another war at some time in the future. But according to Dr. Shaw:

It is undoubtedly true that the majority of women are endowed by nature with great sympathy with human suffering, but it is also true that they are endowed with intelligence and more or less knowledge which combine to show them that in the present war, which is the only one in which we need be concerned, greater suffering would result from an ill-advised peace than from such a termination of hostilities as would make it forever impossible that like suffering would visit the world again. And, therefore, on the basis of human sympathy, they would be opposed to an ill-advised peace.

She then reminded those present that the first organization of women to come up with a plan for war service was the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and it did so even before the U.S. entered the war last April. She pointed to Canada as a country in which the principal issue in the recent election was conscription, and noted that it was women’s votes that sustained the Government and its policy of drafting citizens for military service. 

Another witness, Rosalie Whitney, produced election returns from New York’s Statewide election in November to prove that it was not, as the opponents of suffrage charge, pacifists, Socialists and pro-Germans who were responsible for rolling up the large majority for the suffrage referendum in New York City. The pro-suffrage vote there overwhelmed the 1,510 vote loss in the rest of the State. In New York City, Socialists got only 145,000 votes, while the suffrage referendum got 351,000, nearly two and a half times as many, and suffrage carried the city by about 100,000. An analysis of the soldier vote showed that they voted almost two to one for suffrage, and she asked if the “antis” questioned the patriotism of our men in uniform.

Whitney noted that: “Suffrage polled 38,000 more affirmative civilian votes than did the successful Mayoralty candidate. No candidate was in a class with suffrage, though all were for suffrage. No political party, no class, no ‘isms’ can lay exclusive claim to the suffrage victory. It was the people’s victory.” 

The triumph in New York State on November 6th has been a major boost for our movement, but whether it has provided enough additional momentum and political clout to finally get 2/3 of both House and Senate to vote for the Anthony Amendment remains to be seen. Tomorrow the National Woman’s Party is scheduled to testify in favor, with opponents getting their turn as well.

The final day of hearings will have testimony from both sides again, but it appears that opponents will get the “last word” prior to the vote on the 10th, and no one knows what fanciful and misleading arguments they may come up with in their increasingly desperate attempts to prevent democracy from coming to the women of America.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.