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 28, 1920: Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt may have greatly differing views on the best way to conduct the campaign for woman suffrage, but both are now making identical expressions of confidence that victory is imminent.
Today, Alice Paul announced that a poll of the Tennessee Legislature shows firm pledges by 13 Senators and 35 House members to vote in favor of ratifying the Susan B. Anthony (woman suffrage) Amendment, which would enact an explicit, permanent, nationwide ban on sex discrimination in regard to voting rights. Though 17 of 33 Senate votes and 50 of 99 House votes are needed to make Tennessee the 36th and final State needed to ratify, the number of unpledged legislators is large enough, and the number of those pledged to vote “no” is so small, that majorities in both House and Senate should be achieved when the roll is actually called soon after the legislature meets in special session 12 days from now.
Three days ago, the ever-optimistic Carrie Chapman Catt announced that sufficient pledges had been made to the National American Woman Suffrage Association and other pro-suffrage groups to make ratification a certainty, though she didn’t give specific numbers.
Of course, adding a bit of uncertainty to everyone’s calculations is the fact that there will be a special election on August 5th to fill 13 vacancies, so the votes of the still-to-be-elected members of the Tennessee Legislature obviously can’t be predicted.
Despite being “on the ropes” in what looks like the last round of a decades-long bout, anti-suffragists aren’t ready to “throw in the towel” just yet. Today the Southern Women’s League for the Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment asked the Democratic Presidential nominee, Governor James Cox of Ohio, for a meeting. It’s highly unlikely that Governor Cox, who has been a strong supporter of equal suffrage for many years, and even has two or three of his own paid staffers assigned to helping ratification in Tennessee, will be converted to their about-to-be-lost cause at this late date, but opponents are apparently now desperate enough to give it a try.
The telegram the anti-suffragists sent to Cox seems to acknowledge the positive effects the National Woman’s Party’s tactics are having on the campaign. Its actions such as picketing, and creating a unique “Card Index” which has collected unprecedented amounts of information about legislators, and has proven quite valuable in lobbying, have clearly advanced the campaign for suffrage if opponents are complaining about these methods.
The “antis” say that:
” … homeloving women of the South, who do not picket, card-index or blackmail candidates, appeal to you as the leader of the Democratic Party to grant us a hearing, not on woman suffrage, which any State can adopt for itself without changing a comma of the Federal Constitution, but on two fundamental Democratic principles, State rights and party honor.”
Suffrage opponents object to what they allege is a campaign by the national Democratic Party to “bring about the political conscription of our womanhood and the destruction of Southern civilization by using Federal patronage and party pressure to coerce the legislators of Tennessee into violating their solemn oaths of office and their State Constitution.’
The reference to the Tennessee Constitution has to do with the fact that it contains a clause requiring a Statewide General Election to take place between the time a Federal amendment is submitted to the States and ratification by the Tennessee Legislature. But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June, in regard to another amendment, appears to overturn any restrictions on a State legislature’s ability to ratify an amendment at any time. So, most legal scholars now believe that it isn’t necessary for Tennessee’s legislators to wait until after a new legislature is elected and seated following the November elections in order to vote on the suffrage amendment.
In what’s clearly another reference to the National Woman’s Party, some of whose members were sent to jail for picketing President Wilson, and were awarded a small pin in the shape of a jail cell door by the Party after their release, the “antis” implored Cox not to affiliate himself with a small group of pickets “whose chosen symbol is a badge representing their jail terms for persecuting a Democratic President.”
Cox stated late today that he would give opponents a hearing “at some convenient time” in the future. He has already had lengthy and productive meetings with representatives of the National Woman’s Party to plan mutual strategies for ratification, so it’s clear where his priorities lie, and which side has the momentum for victory.