Today in Feminist History: Suffrage Falls Short by One Vote in the Senate

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 10, 1919: Frustration and disappointment, but steely determination to press on, as a landmark suffrage victory came tantalizingly close today, but still remains just out of reach.

Only one vote stood in the way of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment – which would ban sex discrimination in regard to voting rights nationwide – being adopted by the Senate. Having already been passed by the House on January 10th of last year, Senate approval would have sent it directly to the States for ratification, and done so at the best possible time. 

Since this is an odd-numbered year, all State legislatures are now, or soon will be, in regular session—so, had the Anthony Amendment passed today, there could have been quick votes in every State, and ratification long before any of the party primaries in 1920. Since Congressional approval will be delayed by at least a few months, legislators in many States will have finished voting on this session’s bills by then, and when the legislature adjourns, go home to their other jobs until the next regular session, which in some States won’t be until 1921.

Getting 36 approvals from State legislatures in time for the next General Election will mean convincing a number of governors to call “special sessions.” Even pro-suffrage governors will not be eager to do this because of the extra expense to taxpayers, and anti-suffrage governors certainly will not call their legislatures back into session to approve a suffrage amendment.

Despite vigorous campaigns by both militant and more traditional suffrage groups, personal pleas from political powerhouses such as President Wilson and William Jennings Bryan to their fellow Democrats, and 26 State legislatures having recently asked Congress to pass the suffrage amendment so that they can ratify it, that last vote was nowhere to be found. 

The amendment’s chief sponsor, Senator Andrieus Jones, Democrat of New Mexico, was bitterly disappointed that in the final few days in which his party controls Congress, this measure was not passed, and the blame for that failure will fall on his party.

Another Democratic Party leader expressed his disappointment this way: “It means certain defeat of the Democrats in 1920. The Republicans will adopt the resolution, and the women of the country will give them full credit for it. The Democrats have perpetrated a stupid trick in defeating the resolution.”

Senate Majority Leader Thomas S. Martin, Democrat of Virginia, did not change his strong opposition to the amendment even though he had been warned by colleagues that his action might “dig a hole” for the party in next year’s General Election. 

PHOTO: Senator Andrieus Jones, Democrat of New Mexico, who has served since March 4, 1917. He heads the Senate drive for the suffrage amendment and deserves great praise for his efforts.

Today there was a final half-hour of debate, which convinced no one to switch sides, followed by a vote of 55-29, with 12 absent or not voting. Two-thirds being needed for adoption of a Constitutional amendment resolution, a single convert would have made it 56-28 and been sufficient for passage. Had all 96 members of the Senate been present and voting, the result would still have been defeat by a one-vote margin of 63-33, with 64-32 needed. 

The Anthony Amendment was endorsed today by 72.7% of Senate Republicans and 59.6% of Senate Democrats. The vote had been even more lopsided in the House, where a bare majority of Democrats (50.5%) voted for it, but it got such overwhelming support from Republicans (83.3%) and five out of the six members who are not affiliated with either party that it got the two-thirds needed, but without a single vote to spare.

The entrenched opposition of segregationist Southern Democrats remains the principal roadblock to suffrage. Though traditional views about the role of women may have played a part in the “no” votes of some Senators from both North and South, the biggest factors in Southern Democrats’ opposition are an aversion to Federal legislation in general, the fact that the amendment is, and always has been, race-neutral, and Congress, not the individual States, having the power to enforce it.

Suffrage groups have absolutely refused to change even a punctuation mark in Susan B. Anthony’s original 1878 wording, or to gut it by allowing only the States to enforce it:

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.

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

Senator Edward James Gay, Democrat of Louisiana, said he was in favor of women voting, and had worked to get a suffrage bill through the Louisiana Legislature, but was opposed to a Federal amendment that would “impose” woman suffrage on all States. 

Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi addressed the major concern of Southern Democrats when he attempted to offer a change in the wording of the Anthony Amendment so that it would apply to white women only. Since the resolution was already on its third reading, his motion was ruled out of order unless unanimous consent was given, something that was clearly lacking. This saved the Senate the trouble of rejecting his proposal again as it did on October 1st, when 61 Senators voted against such a change, and 22 were in favor.

Fortunately, the new Congress elected back in November will be seated on March 4th. The Anthony Amendment appears to have gained three Senate votes and lost only one in the elections, so a net gain of two should assure a favorable vote of 65-31 when the measure comes up again. The new House must pass the Anthony Amendment once more, but is expected to do so by a comfortable margin, so victory may have been delayed today, but it will certainly not be denied. 


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.