Today in Feminist​ History: 19th Amendment Gains Bicameral Approval (June 4, 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.

June 4, 1919: The unprecedented elation expressed by every suffragist in the Senate gallery earlier today has now spread nationwide, along with news of the biggest victory so far in the long history of the women’s rights movement! 

PHOTO: Speaker of the House Frederick H. Gillet signing the suffrage resolution earlier today, surrounded by members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association on the left, and key pro-suffrage House members on the right.

Forty-one years after the Susan B. Anthony Amendment was first introduced into Congress for the purpose of banning sex discrimination at all polling places in the U.S., today’s Senate vote of 56 to 25 finished the process of gaining the approval of two-thirds of both houses of Congress, and sends the proposed 19th Amendment to the States, where three-fourths (36 of 48) must ratify for it to become part of the U.S. Constitution.

In recognition of its many decades of work for the measure, representatives of the National American Woman Suffrage Association were invited to be present when House Speaker Frederick Gillet, Republican of Massachusetts, signed the suffrage resolution on behalf of the House, where it passed by 304-89 on May 21st. The gold pen he used to sign it was then presented to N.A.W.S.A. officials. Tomorrow, Vice-President Thomas R. Marshall, Democrat of Indiana, is expected to sign on behalf of the Senate in his role as President of the Senate. 

One final step to victory was the targeting of anti-suffrage Senators in the November elections, reducing their number enough in the new Congress to turn the measure’s previous narrow defeats into a two-vote victory today. But though opponents knew that they were fighting a losing battle, they kept putting up every imaginable roadblock, from a filibuster to numerous attempts to re-word the amendment as a last-ditch strategy to dilute its power or delay its passage and ratification.

One example from yesterday clearly illustrated why Southern segregationists have so vehemently opposed the Anthony Amendment, and held up its passage for so long. Senator Pat Harrison, Democrat of Mississippi, offered a “rider” that would make the Anthony Amendment apply to white women only. It was rejected 58-17.

When segregationists were unable to accomplish their goal by direct means, Senator Edward James Gay, Democrat of Louisiana, tried another approach. He attempted to change the section that gives Congress the power to enforce the amendment to wording that would leave enforcement to only the States.

These “enforcers” would, of course, be some of the same States that outrageously continue to ignore the 15th Amendment’s ban on racial bias in regard to voting rights. His proposal was defeated 61-19. So, the race-neutral language insisted upon by all suffrage groups, composed by Susan B. Anthony herself in 1875, and already passed twice by the House, was preserved intact.

Upon ratification, Congress will have the power—and hopefully the will—to fully and immediately do its duty to enforce the voting rights of every woman – and through overdue enforcement of the 15th Amendment, those of every man—in every State.

The Anthony Amendment reads:

“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.”

When the final four-hour debate was over, the roll called, and the five-minute standing ovation from the Senate gallery after the vote had died down, the hard job of gaining ratification by 36 of the 48 State legislatures began immediately. Fortunately, a proposal by Senator Oscar Underwood, Democrat of Alabama, which would have required that the amendment be submitted to State Constitutional Conventions, rather than State legislatures, had been rejected 55-28. Had it passed, this would have made the ratification process considerably longer and more cumbersome, and very unlikely to be completed this year—or even before the 1920 elections.

Our leaders are as confident that 36 approvals can be obtained before next year’s Presidential election as our opponents are that they can get at least one House in each of 13 State legislatures to permanently stand against the proposed 19th Amendment. Opposition would literally have to be permanent to stop the measure, because there is no time limit on ratification, a restriction that was uniquely applied to the Prohibition Amendment, ratified in January, and which will take effect on January 16, 1920. 

Alice Paul, already on the road and campaigning for ratification in Minnesota, and who along with other National Woman’s Party members underwent arrests, hunger strikes, and force-feedings as part of a successful campaign to get President Wilson to finally endorse and then work for the Anthony Amendment, said today:

“Women who have taken part in the long struggle for freedom feel today the full relief of victory. Freedom has come not as a gift but as a triumph, and it is therefore a spiritual as well as a political freedom which women receive … There is no doubt of ratification by the States. We enter upon the campaign for special sessions of the legislatures to accomplish ratification before 1920 in the full assurance that we shall win.”

Carrie Chapman Catt, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1900 to 1904, and since 1915, said from New York City:

“The last stage of the fight is to obtain ratification of the amendment so women may vote in the Presidential election of 1920. This we are confident will be achieved … In the result we can turn our backs today upon the end of a very long and arduous struggle needlessly darkened and embittered by the stubbornness of a few at the expense of many. ‘Eyes front’ is the watch word now as we begin another struggle, short, as the other was long, the struggle for ratification.”

The ratification campaign is complicated by the fact that anti-suffragists succeeded in delaying Congressional approval for so long that many State legislatures which began meeting earlier this year have finished their business and already adjourned. Therefore, some special sessions will have to be called by State governors in order to gain the necessary approvals before the legislatures reconvene for their next regular sessions in 1921. But the power and political sophistication now being exercised by the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman’s Party seem equal to the task.

In the same way that credit should be shared for getting the measure this far, these two organizations—as well as many independent groups and individuals—should soon be dividing up the credit for ratification of what now seems certain to become the 19th Amendment!


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.