Today in Feminist History: Suffragists Refuse to Retreat (May 18, 1920)

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.

May 18, 1920: Will Hays and other Republican leaders who may have become complacent about woman suffrage, and presume that “Votes for Women” advocates will continue to praise them for past efforts, got a reminder today that the struggle is not over, and they have more work to do.

National Woman’s Party activists made it plain that they will criticize anyone who retreats even slightly from the front lines of the battle until the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment is ratified.

Though not as colorful as the party’s banner-bearing “Silent Sentinels,” who picketed President Wilson three years ago over his—and the Democratic Party’s—lack of commitment to suffrage, today’s protesters sent an equally strong and uncompromising message to Mr. Hays, head of the Republican National Committee. The reason for the protest is the failure of the Republican governors of Connecticut and Vermont to call special sessions of their legislatures to ratify the Anthony Amendment, plus the continued delay of a ratification vote in Delaware.

Just yesterday the Republican leaders of that state met, but did not choose to use their influence to pressure their fellow Republicans to call up the ratification resolution and cast their votes in favor.

Congress passed the Anthony Amendment on June 4, 1919, and 35 States have now ratified, but 36 out of 48 are needed for the 3/4 the Constitution requires.

Registration deadlines for the November 2nd election have already passed in two States, and others approach. Though women have already won full voting rights in some states, the longer ratification is delayed, the more obstacles there will be in the way of women voting in all States in November.

The high expectations for today’s meeting with some wealthy women of Washington, D.C., were obvious from the slips of paper that were placed on each chair. They read:

“For the use of the Republican National Committee, I herewith enclose a check for $1,000.”

Once everyone was seated, the usual flowery introduction of the keynote speaker was given, then Mr. Hays got up from his chair, expecting to give a standard fundraising speech to a group of highly supportive women.

But before Hays could launch the first platitude, Elsie Hill, daughter of the late Republican member of Congress from Connecticut, started the proceedings off with a question:

“Before you ask us to support the Republican Party, Mr. Hays, won’t you tell us what the Republican Party is going to do about Delaware ?”

Sensing that this was not a question the guest of honor was eager to answer, the man in charge of the meeting said:

“I am sure Mr. Hays, if he has time in the course of his remarks, will answer that question.”

Sue White, of Nashville, seconded the request, demanding an answer. Benigna Green Kalb, a Republican activist from Ohio, spoke up as well, making it clear she would not continue to show loyalty to her party unless it showed the same to women:

“Mr. Hays, women will not give money for the next elections until they know whether or not they are going to vote in them. In Delaware, Connecticut and Vermont, the Republican Party can answer that question.”

Finally, Hays realized that he had to address the issue:

“I suppose I may as well take this matter up at once. My dear ladies, if any one of you knew anything about practical politics, you would know that we do not carry legislatures around in our pockets. Why don’t you go to Delaware and work for suffrage?”

Though many certainly felt insulted by the condescending tone of his answer, Anita Pollitzer was especially offended, and said:

“I have been working in Delaware, Mr. Hays, for six weeks. The legislators of Delaware seem to think that the Republican Party can do something about suffrage in that State.”

One of the leading Republicans in the Lower House telephoned me last night and asked:

“What are the national Republican leaders going to do about this deadlock here ?”

Hays then tried to reassure everyone that woman suffrage was inevitable, and therefore in no need of extraordinary efforts by his party:

“Every Republican hopes that Delaware will ratify. Some one of the remaining States will be intelligent enough to act between now and election time. I feel sure you women will vote in the next election.”

Abby Scott Baker then asked:

“Mr. Hays, why are you so sure women will vote in the next election ? If the Republican Party can not persuade the Republican legislature of Delaware to ratify, can it persuade the Republican governors of Connecticut and Vermont to call special sessions, or are you depending upon the Democratic States to enfranchise the women to whom your party is now appealing for funds?” 

Not having a particularly good answer to that question, Hays decided to instead recall past glories, and the fact that Republicans deserve the lion’s share of the credit for bringing the Anthony Amendment this far. When the U.S. House passed it last year by the required 2/3 supermajority, the vote was 104 Democrats in favor and 70 opposed (59.8 percent support), but 200 Republicans in favor and just 19 opposed (91.3 percent).

In the U.S. Senate, where a similar 2/3 approval was needed, it was 20 Democrats in favor and 17 opposed (54 percent support), but 36 Republicans in favor and 8 against (81.8 percent).

Of the 35 States that have ratified so far, 26 have Republican legislatures (74.3 percent), 6 are Democratic (17.1 percent), and in the remaining 3, one party controls the House and the other the Senate (8.6 percent). But praiseworthy as that record may be, without a 36th State, 35 ratifications enfranchise no one.

As was the case with the “Silent Sentinels” posted along the White House fence not so long ago, whose banners asked questions the Democratic President and his supporters found embarrassing, today’s not-so-silent protesters’ questions were met with boos from some in the audience. But since many of today’s interrogators were veterans of that earlier campaign, which involved arrests, imprisonment, hunger strikes and force-feedings, they weren’t about to be intimidated by a few jeers.

Hays tried one more time to deflect the only really pertinent questions being asked at the meeting by retreating even farther into the past and recalling the virtues of Abraham Lincoln. But Lucy Branham insisted on bringing the discussion back into this century, and after trying to dissuade her from interrupting his soliloquy by saying, “Not now, young lady, not now,” he finally realized that the battle was lost, and gave up his fundraising attempts for the day.

The National Woman’s Party has now issued a press release proudly saying that it was, in fact, its members who had disrupted the meeting, and explaining why:

“The Republican Party is in overwhelming control of the Delaware Legislature, which has been in session since March 22, but has so far failed to give the vote which will complete ratification of the suffrage amendment.

“In addition, the Republican governors of Connecticut and Vermont have steadfastly refused to call special sessions of their legislatures, which are believed to hold a majority for the amendment.”

The battle for a Constitutional ban on sex discrimination at the polls is now clearly in its final stages, and though it has been a multi-generational struggle, it will be what is done in the next few weeks or months that will be uppermost in the minds of voters in November, and may even influence the way many women view the parties for years to come.

Millions of women already vote on all questions and candidates in equal suffrage States, and can vote for president in a number of “presidential suffrage” States.

Each party has the opportunity to take the credit for putting the Anthony Amendment over the top—or the blame for blocking ratification until after the election, and continuing to bar all the women in male-suffrage States from the polls. Actions such as today’s by the National Women’s Party are essential to keeping up the pressure until final victory is achieved, and today’s protesters should be praised for their “No Vote, No Money!” campaign.


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.