Today in Feminist History: Susan B. Anthony Amendment on the Verge of Passage! (May 26, 1919)

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 26, 1919: Despite the frantic efforts of opponents, the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which would ban sex discrimination in regard to voting rights nationwide, appears to be on the verge of final passage by Congress, and being sent to the States for ratification!


Only a filibuster, led by Senator Hoke Smith, Democrat of Georgia and Senator Oscar Underwood, Democrat of Alabama, prevented a vote today.

Senator Wesley Jones, Republican of Washington, is trying to get a motion passed to take the Anthony Amendment out of the hands of the Suffrage Committee and on to the floor for a vote by the full Senate. But Senator Smith made a motion to table Jones’ motion. If Smith had been successful, his motion would have kept the amendment bottled up in the Suffrage Committee for an indefinite, but certainly a very long, time.

Delay is now the main strategy of anti-suffragists, who want to keep women in States where they don’t already have the vote from voting in next year’s Presidential election, even though they know that they can’t keep them out of the voting booth forever.

Virtually all State legislatures were still in session in March, when the new Congress convened, so they could have voted on ratification quickly if Congress had immediately passed the Anthony Amendment and sent it to the States for approval. But as time has gone by, some legislatures have finished their business and adjourned, and many more will do so. When that happens, ratification can only occur when a State’s governor calls the legislature back into special session, something anti-suffrage governors clearly won’t do, and even pro-suffrage governors are reluctant to do because of the extra expenses involved to taxpayers. 

Smith’s motion to keep the suffrage amendment in committee was defeated by an encouraging 64 against to 27 in favor, indicating that even if the entire Senate had been present, there are at least 64 votes for suffrage, exactly the two-thirds of the 96 Senators needed. 19 Democrats and eight Republicans voted to table the discharge motion, with forty-one Republicans and twenty-three Democrats expressing their opposition to keeping the amendment in committee.

Had today’s filibuster not prevented Senator Jones’ motion from being voted upon and passed, the Anthony Amendment would have been taken out of the hands of the Suffrage Committee, and Jones would immediately have called for a vote by the full Senate. The Anthony Amendment would have passed 64 to 27, giving it three votes to spare among the 91 Senators present and voting.

Having failed to bury the amendment in committee, opponents had no other tactic left than to filibuster and delay a vote by the full Senate as long as possible. So Senators Smith and Underwood, assisted by a rare anti-suffrage Republican, Senator Wadsworth of New York, took to the floor and talked for the remainder of the day, thus forcing the matter to be put over until day after tomorrow. 

If not for the opposition of Southern Democrats, the amendment would have passed long ago, and might already have been ratified by the required 36 of 48 States. But despite the frustrations of being within a few votes of the two-thirds majority needed for Senate passage session after session, there has been no compromise with segregationists who want a re-wording of the amendment so that Section One would enfranchise white women only, or a change in Section Two so that enforcement would shift from Congress to the individual States. Such a change in Section Two would permit enforcement at the State level only, with predictably unjust results in rigidly segregated States.

But with 64 solid votes in the Senate, and passage by the House already accomplished on May 21st by a vote of 304 to 89, it now appears that this phase of the long battle is drawing to a close, and that the Susan B. Anthony Amendment will soon pass Congress in its pure form, as a worthy tribute to the woman for whom it is named.

This is the full text of the proposed 19th Amendment, precisely the same today as when it was first introduced into Congress on January 10, 1878, by Senator Aaron Sargent, Republican of California:

“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 the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”


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About

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.