Today in Feminist History: The Political Power of the National Woman’s Party (July 14, 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 14, 1920: Today brought new proof of the National Woman’s Party’s political power!

Republican Presidential nominee Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio.

Just four days after it issued a press release detailing Senator Warren G. Harding’s “varied, evasive, and non-committal” record on the issue of woman suffrage over the years, and after publicly discussing plans to demonstrate outside one of his campaign events next week, the Republican Presidential nominee has suddenly become a strong advocate of the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

Harding’s action is quite a change from his previous position of sympathy for the cause, but an absolute refusal to lobby for it. Today, Harding appealed directly to legislators in both Tennessee and North Carolina, where ratification of the proposed 19th Amendment will be voted upon next month, asking them to vote in favor of suffrage when their legislatures are called into special session. Either State could provide the 36th and final ratification needed to fulfill the Constitutional requirement that an amendment be approved by 2/3 of both Houses of Congress (accomplished June 4, 1919), then a 3/4 majority (36) of the 48 States. 

Suffrage is certainly a major campaign issue now, with both parties eager to win the votes of women who live in States where they can presently vote, and party strategists are becoming concerned about how women in the other States will vote if the Anthony Amendment is ratified in time for them to register for the November elections.

Democrats are hoping that a Democratic State (Tennessee or North Carolina) will be the one that puts the amendment over the top, and that the victory there will still be fresh in the minds of women voters just a few months later on Election Day.

Republicans are hoping that women voters will remember that it was only the overwhelming support of Congressional Republicans (81.8% in the Senate and 91.3% in the House) that enabled the Anthony Amendment to be passed by the 2/3 majority needed, since only 54% of Senate Democrats and 59.8% of House Democrats voted for it. Republicans also take justifiable pride in the fact that 26 of the 35 States that have ratified so far have Republican legislatures. Just 6 Democratic States have ratified, and 8 of the 9 States that have rejected the Anthony Amendment have been Democratic. In 3 of the States that have ratified, one party controls the House, the other the Senate. 

Harding entered the battle today with the following statement:

“For myself and the Republican Party I earnestly desire that ratification may be accomplished in time to give the whole body of American women the ballot next November. I am wearied with efforts to make partisan advantage out of the situation. I hope there will be ratification, and I don’t care a fig whether it is secured through a Republican or Democratic State. I will rejoice if North Carolina will do it or if Tennessee will do it, just as I would rejoice if a Republican State did it. There will be glory enough for the Republican Party, no matter whether the thirty-sixth State is Republican or not. If any word of mine could possibly be influential with any Republican in the North Carolina Legislature, or in the Tennessee Legislature, that word would be: ‘Vote for ratification and don’t worry about who gets the credit for putting it over.'” 

This isn’t the first time the National Woman’s Party has helped prod a powerful politician into action. President Wilson was supportive of woman suffrage in general, but unwilling to endorse or work for the Anthony Amendment until after the N.W.P. (at that time called the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage) began picketing him on January 10, 1917, by standing along the White House fence. Pickets held up large banners pointing out Wilson’s hypocrisy in vigorously campaigning for democracy around the world while doing nothing to help enfranchise the female half of his own country’s citizens. 

On January 9, 1918 – after hundreds of arrests, many jail sentences, and even hunger strikes that resulted in force-feeding of some of the suffrage prisoners – Wilson endorsed the Anthony Amendment, then went on to become a lobbyist for suffrage. He even went so far as to speak in person before the Senate on September 30, 1918, urging the Anthony Amendment’s approval as a “War Measure,” and has recently been lobbying Democratic State legislators in Tennessee and North Carolina to approve the proposed 19th Amendment.

Ohio Governor James Cox, the Democratic Presidential nominee, has been a strong and outspoken supporter of suffrage “from the beginning” according to the National Woman’s Party. Alice Paul has just left for Columbus, Ohio, to meet with him on the 16th, and will then go to meet with Senator Harding at his home in Marion, Ohio, on the 22nd. 

Though this long fight for “Votes for Women” seems to be in its final stage, there will certainly be future battles in the struggle for full equality, so the fact that Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party are being formally received and consulted by the next President – whichever candidate that may turn out to be – bodes well for women’s rights in the post-suffrage era. 


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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.