Today in Feminist History: Suffragettes Lobby Reluctant Senator James O’Gorman (April 30, 1915)

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.

April 30, 1915: There was a quite frustrating and somewhat heated exchange of views this afternoon as Inez Milholland Boissevain, Doris Stevens and several other members of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage met with U.S. Senator James O’Gorman, Democrat of New York.

PHOTO: Suffrage supporters surrounded by a crowd of onlookers as they prepared to head for Senator O’Gorman’s office earlier today to quiz him about his views on suffrage.

Despite their best arguments on behalf of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, the Senator still remains opposed, saying: “I will not vote for this or any other woman suffrage amendment.”

At one point in the debate, he actually asked: “Aren’t you women going too hastily?”

Noting that the Anthony Amendment had first been introduced into Congress in 1878, one woman retorted: “Too quickly? After forty years?”

She was immediately seconded by Boissevain, who asked: “Can freedom come too quickly ?”

The Senator then politely insisted that women already have a great deal of influence, and don’t need an amendment.

As the laughter died down, someone said: “It is too late to say anything like that to us now.”

O’Gorman was reminded that there are already a number of States in which women can vote, and it is only a matter of time until women voters would be powerful enough to force the issue nationwide. He replied that there are only 8 million people in all eleven full-suffrage States, not much more than the population of New York City, and that in one suffrage State there were more square miles than people. “What is good for Utah and Colorado may not be good for New York,” he cautioned.

Mary Prendergast noted how unfair and illogical it was that the President must listen to women in States where they can vote, while freely ignoring those in the rest of the nation. Then the difficulty and indignity of the burden women face in winning the vote was brought up by her as well:

“Our country ought to be too big and magnanimous to stand by and see the flower of its womanhood spending itself in this hard struggle to which it has consecrated itself, and which it is determined never to relinquish until it is won, when with one single act of justice it can place its women, who have never failed it in time of need, in a position of dignity which they surely merit, and which they will always cherish.”

Doris Stevens added: “The slow, tedious process of converting the male electorate of half the country is a task that we feel is too wasteful. It is too humiliating and unjust, and that is the reason we women have come to Congress in such numbers the last two years to ask for a Federal amendment.”

But O’Gorman chose to avoid directly confronting the issue of why women should be denied the vote, and took a “States’ Rights” stance:

“States that want woman suffrage can bestow it now as freely and effectively as the Federal Government could if the Federal Constitution were amended for that purpose. The sole purpose of the proposed amendment seems to be to force woman suffrage on the States that are opposed to it.”

But his early and enthusiastic support of two recently ratified Constitutional amendments (the 16th, which provides for a national income tax, and the 17th, which mandates direct election of Senators by the voters), would seem to call into question his reluctance to amend the Constitution and allow 36 States to “force their views” on the other 12. 

Eventually the meeting ended with both sides unmoved and equally committed to their respective stands. Doris Stevens made the best of it: “Well, he has declared himself clearly. That was what we wanted, and it was worth coming for.”


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.