Today in Feminist History: The Suffrage Amendment is One Vote from Victory!

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.

February 4, 1919: With just six days left until a crucial vote in the Senate, William Jennings Bryan spent today at the Capitol lobbying hard for the one more vote still needed to assure final Congressional approval of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.

If passed by two-thirds of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the states, it would overturn any laws that currently bar women from the polls. The three-time Democratic Presidential nominee (1896, 1900 and 1908) and recent Secretary of the Treasury (1913-15), urged his fellow Democrats to support suffrage not only as a matter of justice, but self-preservation as well:

“Woman suffrage is coming to the country and the world. It will be submitted to the States by the next Congress, if not submitted by the present Congress. I hope the Democrats of the South will not handicap the Democrats of the North by compelling them to spend the next 25 years explaining to the women of the country why their party prevented submission of the suffrage amendment to the States. This is our last chance to play an important part in bringing about this important reform.”

Bryan has good reason to worry about how women will view the Democratic Party once they have won the vote nationwide. When the Anthony Amendment passed the House on January 10th of last year by the two-thirds majority needed (274-136) it was principally because of Republican votes. Republicans provided 165 affirmative votes (83.3 percent of party members in favor), Democrats gave 104 (50.5 percent support), while the other 5 pro-suffrage votes were supplied by House members not affiliated with either party.

Photo: William Jennings Bryan

When the suffrage amendment came up in the Senate on October 1st, it fell two votes short of the two-thirds needed, with the original tally standing at 54-30 (12 members absent or not voting). Republicans voted 27-10 in favor (73 percent support, and comfortably over the two-thirds needed), while Democrats voted 27-20 in favor (57.4 percent support, well under two-thirds). Senator Andrieus Jones, Democrat of New Mexico, the amendment’s sponsor, changed his vote to a “no” when he saw it wouldn’t pass, so that under Senate rules he would have the right to bring it up again if and when the outlook seemed more favorable. This left the final tally at 53-31. Had all 96 Senators been present and voting, the result would have been 62-34, still a two-vote loss. 

Had just two more Senators voted in favor of the Anthony Amendment, the original vote would have been 56-28, it would have passed, been submitted to the States early last Fall, and would be well on its way to ratification by now. But despite that setback, months of hard work are paying off. The two-vote gap was cut in half yesterday when Senator William Pollock, Democrat of South Carolina, pledged his support for suffrage, so now only a single convert is being sought. 

Bryan talked at length with more than a dozen Southern Democrats today, Senator Trammel of Florida among them. His vote is seen as the most likely to change, and put the amendment over the top, so Trammel has been heavily lobbied, and he even received a personal telegram from President Wilson, the nation’s highest-ranking Democrat, urging a “yes” vote. When pressed on whether he had been converted to the cause by Mr. Bryan, Senator Trammel would only say: “I told Bryan that I would carefully consider what he had said to me.”

In another development today, 22 Democratic Senators who favor suffrage petitioned the Democratic Leader, Senator Thomas Martin of Virginia, to call a conference of Senate Democrats to discuss the issue. Realizing how critical this upcoming vote could be to the image of the party, Senator Martin has agreed to hold such a conference tomorrow night.

Control of Congress will be passing from Democrats to Republicans on March 4th, thanks to the results of the November 5th election, thus making passage of the Anthony Amendment virtually assured sometime this year. But it would be much better if the present Congress passed it. If it doesn’t, the entire approval process will have to start all over again in the new Congress. The House would have to pass it a second time, and the Senate for the first time. 

The complicated process of introducing an amendment, holding hearings, and finally getting it to the floor for a vote could easily take several months, and by late spring or early summer, many State legislatures will have finished their regular sessions. Once they adjourn, the only way to achieve ratification in these States during this year and the next would be for the governors of those States to call their legislatures back for a special session, something they would not want to do because of the expense to taxpayers. Anti-suffrage governors would certainly not call such sessions, so even if a majority of members of a State legislature wanted to ratify, they couldn’t do it until their next regular session in 1921. 

Though passage by Congress finally seems in sight 41 years after the Anthony Amendment was first introduced, the path to victory is still not an unobstructed one. But with achievement of the first part of the process this close, there will be an unprecedented effort to get this long-overdue amendment out of Congress, then ratified by 36 States so that millions of women will not be barred from the polls when American elects its next President and Vice-President, every member of the House, and 1/3 of the Senate on November 2, 1920.

The Anthony Amendment says:

Section 1: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Section 2: Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


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.