Today in Feminist History: The Democrats May Make Suffrage Possible (July 7, 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.

July 7, 1920: In a development that’s as surprising as it is welcome, it’s starting to look as if it may be Democrats, not Republicans, who will be responsible for the final step needed to put woman suffrage in the Constitution.

Governor James Cox of Ohio, who officially became the Democratic nominee for President yesterday on the 44th ballot, began his first full day as his party’s nominee by sending a telegram to the head of the Democratic State Committee of Louisiana urging reconsideration of that State’s recent rejection of the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment. He said that: ” … the Legislature owes it as a duty to the Democratic Party to ratify at once.”

It was only due to overwhelming support by Republicans (91.3% in the House and 81.8% in the Senate vs. only 59.8% House support and 54% support in the Senate by Democrats) that the Anthony Amendment got the 2/3 supermajority required by Congress. Of the 35 States that have ratified thus far, 26 are controlled by Republicans, 6 by Democrats, and in 3, one party controls the House and the other the Senate. Of the 9 States that have rejected ratification, 8 are Democratic. So, today’s action is a very much appreciated, if belated, show of support. 

Alice Paul was quite pleased with Governor Cox’s enthusiasm, and noted that:

“By taking action on the day following his nomination to secure ratification by a Southern State, Mr. Cox is making an excellent beginning. He is evidently striving to make the suffrage plank of his platform an actuality. If his efforts continue with sufficient vigor there is little doubt of ratification by at least one of three possible Democratic States – Louisiana, Tennessee, and North Carolina.”

Of course, the entire ticket needs to be working for the cause, and the National Woman’s Party intends to meet with the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York. Though not well-known nationally – or even to Governor Cox – Secretary Roosevelt was described by his running-mate today as a “vigorous, upstanding, courageous, and progressive Democrat.”

No one is giving up on Senator Harding and the Republicans, however. It was announced this evening that Harding will meet with a delegation of National Woman’s Party officers on July 22nd, the day he is given formal notification of his Presidential nomination. He has been somewhat non-committal on the issue of suffrage over the years, but did vote in favor of the Anthony Amendment on October 1, 1918, when it was before the Senate, but did not pass. Harding has not been active in his support of suffrage, but that’s something the National Woman’s Party intends to change. As President Wilson could verify, having endured everything from picketing to speech-burning by the party between 1917 and 1919, the N.W.P. can be quite assertive.

In other encouraging news about ratification, Governor Bickett of North Carolina announced that he will call a special session of the legislature for August 10th, and has telegraphed President Wilson that he will urge a favorable vote on ratification of the Anthony Amendment.

As might be expected, the ‘antis” are becoming ever more desperate as they see their chances to stop ratification slipping away. Today, Charles S. Fairchild filed suit in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia on behalf of the American Constitutional League, seeking an injunction to restrain Secretary of State Colby from signing the proclamation of ratification if a 36th State approves, and to keep Attorney General Palmer from immediately enforcing what would then be the 19th Amendment. Fairchild contends that West Virginia and Missouri ratified illegally, and that there are only 33 valid ratifications, with three more needed, not just one. But according to the National Woman’s Party:

“We are convinced that, as in the Ohio referendum case, that validity of the action of the various State legislatures in ratifying the suffrage amendment will finally be upheld by the courts. Anti-suffragists are evidently grasping at straws in their attempt through court proceedings to lengthen the suffrage struggle and to force the expenditure of more money and time by suffragists for the success of their cause.”

So, with the Louisiana Legislature in regular session now, and about to reconsider the Anthony Amendment, and the legislatures of Tennessee and North Carolina to meet in special session in August, that final, 36th ratification – and the end of our generations-long struggle to ban sex discrimination at all of the nation’s polling places – may be anywhere from just a few days to a few weeks away!


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.