Today in Feminist History: Optimism for the 36th State (June 28, 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.

June 28, 1920: “The thirty-sixth State is in sight.”

Alice Paul lobbying by telephone during the early stages of the ratification campaign on June 30th of last year.

That’s the opinion being expressed by Alice Paul, and there is plenty of justification for her optimism about getting the last State ratification necessary to put the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment into the Constitution as the Nineteenth Amendment.

The latest evidence that victory is swiftly approaching is Governor Roberts’ announcement today of a specific date – August 9th – when he will call the Tennessee Legislature into special session to vote on ratification. Should the vote be favorable, a permanent, explicit, nationwide ban on sex discrimination at the polls could be just six weeks away from becoming the law of the land.

Section One of the Anthony Amendment, formally introduced into Congress by Senator Aaron Sargent, Republican of California, on January 10, 1878, and finally passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, says: “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 Two says: “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” Like all amendments except the 18th, there is no time limit on how long the States have to ratify.

Paul declared that today’s action by the Governor was:

” …At once an act of justice to the women of the country and an act bringing extraordinary prestige to the Democratic Party. The setting of a definite date for the suffrage session in Tennessee makes suffrage victory almost certain in time for women to vote in the next elections. Our campaign in Tennessee has now become much simpler. We had feared that a campaign would be necessary to force the Governor to set a sufficiently early date for the session. Now we shall have only the task of making a thorough canvass of the Legislature, to see that the majority which voted for Presidential suffrage in the State last year supports ratification.”

(Tennessee is one of the States whose legislatures have granted women the right to vote for President, but not all other offices.)

Sue White, who heads the Tennessee branch of the National Woman’s Party, sent this message in a telegram to Governor Roberts earlier this evening:

“Understanding that you have officially announced that special session of the Tennessee Legislature would be called on August 9 to ratify suffrage amendment. I offer hearty congratulations. Your action makes certain the enfranchisement of women of eighteen States in time for Presidential elections, ends the half-century struggle of women for political equality, and adds new glory to the unique history of the Volunteer State. Thank you.”

Until very recently, Republicans had been the principal supporters of woman suffrage, but now the Democrats are running fast with the political football fumbled by their rivals on the one-yard line. President Wilson’s telegram to the Governor of Tennessee, which was certainly a factor in getting Governor Roberts, a fellow Democrat, to call the special session, has been followed up with telegrams to the Democratic Governor of North Carolina and two North Carolina Senators asking that their State immediately ratify the Anthony Amendment.

Senator Harding, the Republican Presidential nominee, is still unwilling to involve himself in lobbying two Republican governors who are refusing to call special sessions in Connecticut and Vermont. Those legislatures are not in session, but a majority of their members appear to be eager to ratify if the Governor would exercise his authority to call them back into session. Once adjourned, State legislatures cannot reconvene on their own, but must wait until their next regularly scheduled session unless called back into special session by the Governor.

In a major political turnaround, President Wilson is now giving Alice Paul advance notice of many of his pro-suffrage actions, and has ordered that any statement she makes be brought to him immediately, no matter what the hour.

Back in the days when the National Woman’s Party was picketing the President over his refusal to endorse the Anthony Amendment, or to get actively involved in the suffrage struggle here while vigorously promoting democracy abroad, many suffragists denounced the party’s picketing outside the White House and burning of Wilson’s speeches as counterproductive. But though milder tactics had been tried by other groups since his first inauguration in 1913, it was only after a year of militant actions that Wilson abandoned his “hands-off” stance by endorsing the Anthony Amendment on January 9, 1918. He then began doing everything from personally appearing before the Senate to make a plea for suffrage on September 30, 1918, the night before a vote, to sending telegrams urging special sessions of State legislatures, and asking specific legislators for “yes” votes after the Anthony Amendment was approved by Congress and sent to the States.

Of course, there are practical political considerations involved for both parties in regard to suffrage as well. Though Wilson will not be running in November, he certainly wants the Democratic Party’s nominee to win, and continue his policies. It’s generally believed that the party’s support for U.S. entry into the League of Nations, contrasted with Republican opposition, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, will win many women’s votes for the Democrats if women are able to go to the polls. So this, and the fact that a few powerful and outspoken anti-suffrage Republican Senators are up for election this year in States where women cannot now vote may have more than a little to do with Democrats suddenly warming to the idea of woman suffrage while Republicans seem to be getting cold feet at the last minute. And if it’s Democratic legislators in a Democratic State who put the suffrage amendment over the top, it would certainly help the party on Election Day with women voters.

Whatever partisan considerations there may be in what seems to be the final stage of the battle, the real credit for getting woman suffrage to this point belongs to the individual suffragists who have been working for the vote long before it became an issue of concern to either major party. There will be plenty of time after ratification to debate whether it was Alice Paul’s militance, Carrie Chapman Catt’s more traditional tactics, or the actions of many lesser-known suffragists around the nation that proved decisive in winning the vote. But the important thing now is that the combination of tactics is working, and the efforts for equal suffrage need to be kept at full force until victory arrives with the ratification of a 36th State, and the U.S. Secretary of State’s proclamation that the Anthony Amendment is the Nineteenth 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.