Today in Feminist History: A Major Roadblock to Suffrage Avoided (July 13, 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 13, 1920: As Alice Paul steps up the pressure on both political parties to deliver the 36th and final State ratification needed to put the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment into the Constitution, a potentially major roadblock was brushed aside today by the District of Columbia’s Supreme Court.

Alice Paul beside a National Woman’s Party contribution box labeled “National Ballot Box for 1920.” Women are encouraged to put in a dime, a dollar, or ten dollars, if they want to help pass the Anthony Amendment and enable millions of presently voteless women to cast a ballot in the November elections.

A suit by Charles S. Fairchild, on behalf of the American Constitutional League challenged, among other things, the legality of one of the 35 State ratifications the proposed 19th Amendment has already received. Fairchild sought an immediate interlocutory judgment prohibiting Secretary of State Colby from signing the ratification proclamation when the 36th State ratifies, and then to stop Attorney General Palmer from doing anything to enforce the 19th Amendment until the validity of all the points raised in his challenge could be settled.

Had Fairchild been successful in his request, the status of the Anthony Amendment would have been put in doubt for as long as it would take for the case to finally be heard and then decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Even if a 36th State ratified the woman suffrage amendment in time for women to register for the November elections, officials in States where women cannot now vote could have used the order as an indication that the challenge had merit, and use that as an excuse to postpone the registration of women.

Fairchild’s action was filed six days ago as “antis” became increasingly desperate. Having lost the battle in Congress and 35 of the 36 State legislatures required for ratification, our opponents now hope to use legal maneuvers to keep women out of the voting booth as long as possible, even as special sessions of the Tennessee and North Carolina legislatures are preparing to convene to vote on ratifying the amendment.

Suffrage leaders had little time to celebrate today’s victory, however, because even though there is now no legal obstacle to Secretary of State Colby proclaiming the Anthony Amendment to be ratified, the approval of a 36th State legislature is still needed before he can do so. Next month, what may be the fiercest battle in the history of the suffrage campaign will be fought, because if successful, it will be the final one, so both our side and the opposition are preparing for an all-out effort.

In other developments today, Ohio Governor James Cox, the Democratic nominee for President, announced that he would receive a National Woman’s Party delegation in Columbus three days from now. After that he will go to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Wilson, who is already actively involved in lobbying Democratic State legislators in Tennessee and North Carolina to approve the Anthony Amendment.

As for Ohio’s U.S. Senator Warren G. Harding, the Republican Presidential nominee, Alice Paul is planning to stage a demonstration in front of his home in Marion on the 22nd when he receives the official notification of his party’s nomination at a special ceremony. Though both major parties and their Presidential candidates have now officially endorsed nationwide woman suffrage, the National Woman’s Party recently described Harding’s record as “varied, evasive, and non-committal,” while Cox has “shown a favorable attitude from the first.”

If picketing of Harding is initiated, it could be kept up until a 36th ratification is achieved, regardless of how long that may take. And if Harding doesn’t take the threat of picketing by the National Woman’s Party seriously, he should ask President Wilson about his experience with the “Silent Sentinels” three years ago, when Wilson was evasive, non-committal, and then insufficiently supportive before finally becoming a strong advocate of woman suffrage via a Constitutional amendment!

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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.