On May 21, 1919, Representative James Mann of Illinois, the bespectacled, gray-bearded, 62-year-old former Republican Leader, made an announcement from the House Floor, cementing a change in American history that had been building for decades. “I call up House joint resolution No. 1, proposing an amendment to the Constitution extending the right of suffrage to women,” he said, “and ask that the resolution be reported.”
It was only two days into the 66th Congress (1919–1921), a special session called by President Woodrow Wilson in the aftermath of the Great War, seven months before Congress’s traditional start date. The House set aside two hours of debate on House Joint Resolution 1, also known as the Susan B. Anthony amendment—one hour for and one hour against. Two hours might not seem long enough for such an important piece of legislation, but this wasn’t the first time the House had debated the issue. The House passed a similar bill granting women the right to vote just 17 months earlier in the 65th Congress (1917–1919), but the Senate failed to do the same. Republicans had captured large majorities in both chambers for the 66th Congress, and Mann wanted to move fast on the issue and capitalize on the new support.
Much of the debate in 1919 echoed what had been said in 1918. Members in favor of women’s suffrage highlighted women’s work during the Great War, pointed out that women had already won the right to vote in a number of states, and reminded those in the chamber that women’s suffrage was simply the right thing to do. Members against H.J. Res. 1 argued a federal amendment would violate the right states had to determine who could—and could not—vote, regardless of what federal law required. At the core of their opposition was a fundamental fear: that women’s suffrage would eventually end America’s entrenched gender and racial hierarchies.
The House passed H.J. Res. 1 that afternoon, beginning a constitutional process that led to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment a year later in August 1920. But while millions of women voted in the elections of 1920, others—mostly women of color—remained purposefully barred from the polls. The House passage of H.J. Res. 1 in 1919 was a new chapter in the history of women’s voting rights in America, but certainly not the last.
In Congress, like elsewhere in America, racial and gender discrimination had been woven in myriad ways into the women’s suffrage debate. Members used common stereotypes to justify their opposition; outside Congress, meanwhile, well-known suffragists tried to convince legislators that women’s suffrage, instead of being a threat to the existing order, would uphold systems of racial oppression.
In January 1918, for instance, Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the country’s largest suffrage organization, wrote a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Edwin Yates Webb of North Carolina, who opposed women’s voting rights. “If the South is really in earnest in its desire to maintain white supremacy,” Catt wrote, “its surest tactics is to indorse the Federal Suffrage Amendment.” She continued, “If you want white supremacy, why not have it constitutionally, honorably? The Federal Amendment offers the way.”
Shortly before the House vote on H.J. Res. 200, President Wilson—a southerner by birth who had previously opposed a federal suffrage amendment—surprised many when he announced his support for the measure. When the House passed the amendment on January 10, 1918—the first time either chamber had passed a suffrage bill—all eyes turned to the Senate, which held a multi-day debate on the bill at the end of September before voting on October 1. Wilson’s decision to back the House amendment frustrated Senate Democrats who wanted the issue left to the states. Senate Democrats who planned to vote “no” would now contradict the president.
On the day of the Senate vote, Mississippi Senator John Sharp Williams offered an amendment which aimed to limit the vote to white women, leaving to each state the option of enfranchising women of color—something Williams, whose family owned slaves before the Civil War, knew would never happen in much of the country. Although the chamber rejected Williams’ proposal, a critical mass of Senators—particularly from the South and Northeast—opposed women’s suffrage as a threat to the existing order in their home states, and the amendment failed by one vote. One newspaper was clear in its analysis of why the suffrage bill failed: “There is no doubt whatever that the attitude of the South on the Negro question barred the passage of the amendment on Tuesday.”
Although suffrage lost in the Democratically controlled 65th Congress, Republicans anticipated the voting rights battle, among other issues, would give them an advantage in the 1918 midterm election. The failed Senate vote, Republicans argued, proved that the GOP could more effectively serve the president and the country than Democrats. Members of the press were right when they predicted “the suffrage defeat spells Democrat defeat.” For the upcoming 66th Congress, Republicans gained a clear majority in the House and flipped the Senate.
On March 4, 1919, the last day of the 65th Congress, Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, bid farewell to the House. As the only woman in Congress, she spearheaded the suffrage effort during her term. She had run unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1918 and would not return to Congress the following year, but she gave her colleagues a clear task. “I am sorry to leave you before the women of this Nation are enfranchised, but I leave to you, the Members of the Sixty-fifth Congress who will be Members of the Sixty-sixth Congress, the great trust of enfranchising the women of this country.”
President Wilson, abroad to negotiate the terms ending the Great War, called an extraordinary session of Congress to begin May 19, 1919. He wanted an early start to the 66th Congress, which typically would have met in December, to consider a number of pressing issues. Among them: appropriations, child labor, veterans’ affairs, and women’s suffrage.
Representative James Mann, who had been named chairman of the Committee on Woman Suffrage for the 66th Congress, introduced a new women’s suffrage amendment on Opening Day. He was frail from a lingering illness but maintained a strong grip on the legislative process. Taking advantage of the GOP majority, Mann maneuvered the suffrage bill onto the floor as H.J. Res 1 without calling new hearings on the bill and before Democrats even named their Members to the committee. It was the first debate scheduled in the House.
On May 21, 1919, H.J. Res. 1 was brought to the floor. Expecting passage, Members used the opportunity to register final appeals for and against the amendment, and both parties jockeyed to claim credit. Mann led the arguments for suffrage. Representative Frank Clark of Florida, a lawyer who had voted against the suffrage amendment the year before, led the opposition.
Proponents of women’s suffrage drew on the country’s recent experience in the Great War. Women across the country stepped out of the home and into the workforce, many for the first time, to support the war effort. Members highlighted their loyalty and participation as reasons women deserved the right to vote. Representative John E. Raker of California, who chaired the Committee on Woman Suffrage in the previous Congress, argued that “because of the work women had done, because of the advantage they have been to America in winning the war, because of their loyalty and unselfishness and their ability to cope with all the vicissitudes of war, [they should] be given the same right to participate in their Government as the men have.”
In 1919, women had already won the right to vote in 15 of the 48 states. During the debate, Members from those states testified about their first-hand experiences when women voted. Hailing from a state that granted women the right to vote seven years earlier, Representative Edward C. Little of Kansas upheld common gender stereotypes about the delicacy of women but assured the House women were capable of voting. “We know of no fireside that has burned more dimly because of any difference of opinion about the use of the ballot. To permit the mothers of this country to express their views on important issues will not injure the homes. As I reflect now I realize that every time I followed my mother’s advice I did well.”
For Members like Little, women’s suffrage was simply the right thing to do. “The long and the short of the whole matter is,” he told his colleagues, “that for centuries you have treated woman as a slave, dragged her over the pages of history by the hair, and then you pretend to think she is an angel, too good to interfere in the affairs of men. Give her now a fixed, reasonable status, as becomes a rational human being like yourself.”
Opponents of the amendment, on the other hand, wanted to continue to control their states’ electorate and felt strongly about who should and should not have the right to vote. Representative Rufus Hardy of Texas, for instance, was representative of many in his belief that the federal government had no right to tell the states how to run their elections. Federal intervention would “destroy the rock on which our ship of state was anchored, the rock of local self-government,” he said. He was certain people who voted for the women’s suffrage amendment would “rue the day when they refused to let each State decide for itself this great fundamental question.” More often than not, however, arguments by Members like Hardy in favor of states’ rights thinly veiled the underlying issue: their opposition to equal opportunity and racial equality.
In his remarks against H.J. Res. 1, Hardy pointed to the last time Congress addressed voting rights in a consequential way when it passed (and the states ratified) the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution granting African-American men the right to vote and outlawing discrimination at the polls based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” For a few years starting in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment, enforced by the federal government in the southern states, led to the election of the first African-American Members of Congress. After Reconstruction, and by the end of the nineteenth century, however, an organized political movement in the South, combined with acquiescent federal courts, enabled state governments throughout the former Confederacy to enact reactionary policies that stripped voting rights from everyone but white men, nullifying the Fifteenth Amendment.
For Members who wanted to preserve America’s white electorate, the women’s suffrage amendment threatened the system of racial injustice that existed in the country. “Under the fifteenth amendment,” Hardy bellowed and threatened from the House Floor, “not only the negro, for whom it was adopted, but the sons of every other race under the sun may vote in any State in the Union” once they became naturalized citizens. In Hardy’s mind, the woman’s suffrage amendment was another step toward federal control over all elections, and reminiscent of what he felt were the wrongs of Reconstruction. “What evils may yet come of the fifteenth amendment,” Hardy warned, “only the future may unfold.”
Representative Clark of Florida, the only member of the Committee on Woman Suffrage who opposed women’s voting rights, was also determined to keep African-American women from the polls. “The amendment gives to all women—white, black, and any other color—the right to vote. . . . This opens up anew the negro question in all the Southern States, and I warn my colleagues from the South who are supporting this measure that they are ‘playing with fire,’ which is likely to produce another ‘reconstruction’ conflagration in our Southland.” He continued, “The real leaders in these matters are the negro women, who are much more insistent and vicious along these lines than are the men of their race.” If black women won the right to vote, he argued, they will “become fanatical on the subject of voting and will reawaken in the negro men an intense and not easily quenched desire to again become a political factor.”
House Majority Leader Frank Wheeler Mondell of Wyoming, one of the last to speak in debate, followed soon after Clark. “I bring the balm of consolation to the agonized soul of the gentleman from Florida,” he said. Wyoming’s territorial legislature adopted women’s suffrage in 1869 and Mondell talked about voting alongside women in his “patriotic, law-abiding, progressive” state. He wanted the same for the country. Anticipating success he stated, “I want to congratulate the good women who fought the good fight all these years, and who now see the dawn of the day of final victory.”
That afternoon, on May 21, 1919, the Susan B. Anthony amendment overwhelmingly passed the House 304 to 89. Two weeks later, on June 4, the Senate passed the amendment with four extra votes, 56 to 25. After three-fourths of the states ratified it, U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby officially added the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution on August 26, 1920.
Millions of women voted for the first time in the 1920 congressional and presidential elections. And yet, despite Mondell’s optimism, the “good fight”—the suffrage fight, the fight over equal access and equal opportunity—was far from over. In states across the country, and especially in the South, segregation, literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation, and violence prevented people of color from voting for generations after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. For many Americans, suffrage only became a reality four decades later with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 3rd sess. (4 March 1919): 5079; Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (21 May 1919): 78, 79, 80, 82, 90, 92, 93, 94; Congressional Record, Senate 65th Cong., 2nd sess. (1 October 1918): 10981, 10984, 10987; Christian Science Monitor, 2 October 1918; Los Angeles Times, 5 June 1919; New York Times, 1 October 1918, 8 May 1919; Herbert F. Margulies, Reconciliation and Revival: James R. Mann and the House Republicans in the Wilson Era (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996); Carrie Chapman Catt to Edwin Yates Webb, January 5, 1918, National Archives and Records Administration, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/74884353; “Women’s Suffrage in the U.S. by State,” Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University.Follow @USHouseHistory