The House Supports Women’s Suffrage, 1917–1919
The election of Jeannette Rankin of Montana to Congress gave the women’s suffrage campaign a major boost. The daughter of a rancher and a schoolteacher, Rankin had studied to be a social worker and joined the suffrage movement while attending the University of Washington where she discovered talents for speaking and organizing. She assisted in the successful campaigns for women’s suffrage in Washington (1910) and in Montana (1914) and worked as a professional lobbyist for the NAWSA. In 1916 Rankin became one of the two Republican nominees for Montana’s two At-Large House seats. During the general election, she ran on a platform that called for a women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution and against U.S. participation in World War I. Rankin won the second At-Large seat, beating the third-place candidate by 6,000 votes.19
With her victory, Rankin became a national media sensation almost overnight. Many reporters had been covering women congressional candidates in Kansas and Washington who had successful electoral careers at the state level.20 While those candidates lost, Rankin’s victory in Montana had come as a surprise. Rankin’s appearance, personal life, and femininity suddenly became the subject of one article after another. Under the headline “Congresswoman Rankin Real Girl; Likes Nice Gowns and Tidy Hair,” for instance, the Washington Post described Rankin as “a woman who is thoroughly feminine—from her charmingly coiffed swirl of chestnut hair to the small, high and distinctively French heels.”21
Even as the media obsessed over her appearance, Rankin took full advantage of her new fame by giving frequent interviews and writing a semiweekly column for the Hearst newspaper syndicate to focus attention on her policies. She used these opportunities to educate the public about the contributions and capacities of women in politics. Rankin also rarely passed up an opportunity to address civic groups. This attention carried over into the first day of the 65th Congress with a breakfast celebration that forced various feuding factions of the NAWSA to toast Rankin’s swearing in together. Newsreels covered her motorcade to Capitol Hill, and Members and guests applauded when she entered the Chamber. “Before she could sit down she was surrounded by men shaking hands with her,” recalled Ellen M. Slayden, the wife of Representative James Luther Slayden of Texas.22 That day, the first of the new Congress and her first as a Representative, Rankin introduced H.J. Res. 3, the Susan B. Anthony suffrage amendment.23
Her presence in the House had an immediate effect on how Congress approached suffrage. In April 1917, Rankin testified before a Senate committee on woman’s suffrage and worked with her House colleagues to keep women’s voting rights on the legislative agenda.24 The House Judiciary Committee, which had jurisdiction over voting rights, had long been hostile to women’s suffrage. To avoid this obstacle, California Democrat John Edward Raker proposed a new standing committee in the House—the Committee on Woman Suffrage—to consider bills related to women’s voting rights, bypassing Judiciary entirely.25 Rankin testified on behalf of Raker’s proposal in May 1917, and on June 6, the Rules Committee cleared it for House consideration.26
On September 24, the full House took up Raker’s resolution to create the Committee on Woman Suffrage.27 “In this hour, when the life of this Republic is at stake and when American women are responding to the call to duty equally with the men,” Rules Committee Chairman Edward William Pou of North Carolina stated, it was more vital than ever that the House create a suffrage committee.28 “We have as a Member of this body the first woman Representative in the American Congress,” Pou said to applause. “She will not be the last, Mr. Speaker.”29 Rankin spoke in favor of the resolution, arguing that Congress needed to lead on the issue given the formidable obstacles blocking women’s suffrage in the states. “Perhaps it is news to you to know that some of the women of the United States can never be enfranchised except by a Federal amendment,” she said, “for the constitutions of some of the States are such that it is practically impossible to amend them.”30
The measure creating the suffrage committee easily passed, 181 to 107.31 House leaders appointed Raker head of the new panel and designated Rankin as the Ranking Republican—a rare nod to a first-term Member in an institution where committee seniority often dictated legislative power. Opponents of women’s suffrage in the House exploited every opportunity to impede the work of the new committee. In December 1917, for instance, Judiciary Committee Chairman Edwin Yates Webb of North Carolina submitted an alternative voting-rights amendment to undercut what he called “the suffrage forces.”32 Webb’s proposal included a restrictive seven-year ratification window; often Congress imposes no time limit on the ratification of constitutional amendments.33 In something of a compromise, Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri requested that all suffrage measures be reintroduced and referred to Raker’s committee, which would then have to report a new bill by January 10, 1918.34
Raker’s Woman Suffrage Committee wasted no time and began hearings on the voting-rights amendment on January 3, 1918.35 At the hearing, Rankin reinforced the arguments of suffrage advocates and highlighted flaws in the opposition’s logic. When former Senator Joseph Weldon Bailey of Texas testified that the vote should be limited to those able to exercise “all the duties of citizenship,” Rankin replied, “We have men in the United States Senate who cannot serve in the Army, and yet they make splendid Senators.”36
A crush of people, including scores who had arrived early to secure a seat in the House Gallery for the suffrage debate, packed the Capitol on the morning of January 10. Many were women who had brought lunches in preparation for a long day. The NAWSA’s leadership—Carrie Chapman Catt and others—were guests of Speaker Clark and watched to see if their lobbying efforts would finally produce results in Congress.37
The House Rules Committee delivered an initial victory on January 10 when it brought the Woman Suffrage Committee’s report to the floor and ignored one from the Judiciary Committee. With Chairman Raker managing debate for Democrats supporting the resolution, H.J. Res. 200, Rankin controlled time for Republican supporters. Two other Members, one Republican and one Democrat, led the opposition for their sides. Only one other woman joined Rankin on the House Floor that day: May Offterdinger, Chairman Raker’s chief aide on the Woman Suffrage Committee.38 As Raker approached a lectern, Massachusetts Republican James Joseph Walsh, a suffrage opponent, suddenly asked if the chairman would yield to Rankin to let her open debate. Raker agreed and stepped aside for the Congresswoman from Montana.
Rankin began by invoking the generations of American women who had fought for the right to vote. “For 70 years the women leaders of this country have been asking the Government to recognize this possibility,” she said. Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Clara Barton, and many others “all have asked the Government to permit women to serve more effectively the national welfare.” Noting that this issue now came up in time of war, Rankin asked that women have the chance to serve their country. “To-day, as never before the Nation needs its women—needs the work of their hands and their hearts and their minds,” she said.39
To those who believed suffrage was a state issue, she had a simple message: “We mobilized and equipped our Army not State by State but through Congress,” she reminded them. “Shall our women, our home defense, be our only fighters in the struggle for democracy who shall be denied Federal action?”40 This war, she reminded the House, required a commitment from everyone, not just those men at the front but the farmer growing crops, the seamstress making uniforms, and the miner working deep underground. She concluded her remarks to sustained applause. “Can we afford to allow these men and women to doubt for a single instant the sincerity of our protestations of democracy? How shall we answer their challenge, gentlemen; how shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?”41
For opponents of the bill on Capitol Hill, the suffrage amendment was not a “small measure of democracy” but an existential threat to the status quo. From the start, racial and gender discrimination had been woven, in different ways, into the fabric of the debate on women’s voting rights in Congress. Some Members justified their opposition to women’s suffrage using commonly held gender stereotypes. “This is no issue to be decided by woman’s fears and tears and emotions,” warned Edward Winthrop Gray of New Jersey, describing a wave of crises that he believed would follow if the amendment passed. “Your social structure will have gone to smash,” he predicted, “and your family, as the unit of society will have gone to smash.” Women, he said, should be free to rely on “man as her God-given protector and champion.” Otherwise, American “civilization is a failure and … God and nature both have erred in their scheme of things.”42
Opponents of the amendment also tried to fold their criticisms into larger denunciations of the power of the federal government: a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote violated what they felt was a state’s right to determine the qualifications of its voters. “Our suffragette friends demand the ballot as a ‘right,’ and in all their literature and public addresses they refer to women as being ‘disfranchised,’” Representative Frank Clark of Florida noted during debate. “They are absolutely wrong in both of these propositions. Suffrage for either man or woman is not a ‘right’ but is simply a privilege, to be conferred or withheld at the pleasure of the State.”43
For years, states across the country had used that very idea to prohibit people of color from voting. Although the Fifteenth Amendment had enfranchised African-American men after the Civil War, a disorienting assortment of discriminatory policies and a complicit federal government continued to make it all but impossible for them to vote. The fact that the Nineteenth Amendment promised to enfranchise African-American women was one of the major reasons a number of southern legislators opposed the legislation.44
Even proponents of women’s voting rights framed their support using discriminatory justifications. In January 1918, for instance, Catt wrote a letter to Judiciary Chairman Edwin Webb urging him to support the amendment and telling him that women’s suffrage, rather than threatening the existing order, would instead help uphold systems of power—and oppression. “If the South is really earnest in its desire to maintain white supremacy,” Catt wrote to Webb, “its surest tactics is [sic] 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.”45
Like Catt and other suffrage champions of the era, Rankin’s advocacy was not fully inclusive. In an effort to win votes in the House, Rankin appealed to southern Members on matters of race. “The women of the South have stood by you through every trial,” she said. “Now they are asking to help you in a big, broad, national way. Are you going to deny them the equipment with which to help you effectively simply because the enfranchisement of a child-race 50 years ago brought you a problem you were powerless to handle? There are more white women of voting age in the South to-day than there are negro men and women together.”46
After two failed attempts to amend the bill on January 10, 1918—including an effort to place a seven-year ratification window on the joint resolution—the suffrage measure went up for a final vote. As a constitutional amendment, the resolution required a two-thirds majority to pass the House, and it won with the thinnest possible margin, 274 to 136. Speaker Clark did not vote but had been prepared to cast the deciding vote in favor if needed. In the galleries, support for the resolution was overwhelming; applause and cheers greeted the announcement.47
The celebrations were short-lived. When the Senate finally considered the suffrage amendment 10 months later in October 1918, it failed in a narrow vote. President Wilson supported the legislation, but Senate Democrats, mainly from the South, where voting rights had long been restricted to white men, opposed it.
The failed Senate vote happened only a month before the 1918 midterm elections, and Republicans quickly turned the unsuccessful effort into a campaign issue.48 “The suffrage defeat spells Democrat defeat,” one newspaper wrote a month before the general election.49 On Election Day 1918, Republicans captured a decisive majority in the House and flipped the Senate.50
But Rankin, one of the most well-known Republican Representatives, had been defeated in her bid for a Senate seat and did not return for the 66th Congress (1919–1921). On March 4, 1919, the closing day of the 65th Congress, Rankin said farewell to the House and implored her colleagues to keep up her fight. “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.”51
19Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.” On Rankin, see Hannah Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: First Lady in Congress (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974); Norma Smith, Jeannette Rankin: America’s Conscience (Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 2002); James J. Lopach and Jean A. Lutkowski, Jeannette Rankin: A Political Woman (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2005).
20“Democrats Name Kansas Woman To Run For Congress,” 7 August 1916, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: 1; “Washington Woman Put Up For Congress,” 14 September 1916, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: 7.
21“Congresswoman Rankin Real Girl; Likes Nice Gowns and Tidy Hair,” 4 March 1917, Washington Post. See also Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “The Original ‘Year of the Woman,’” 30 January 2017, Whereas: Stories from the People's House.
22Josephson, Jeannette Rankin: 71; Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 110. See also “House Wildly Cheers ‘Lady from Montana,’” 3 April 1917, Chicago Daily Tribune: 9; and Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Jeannette Rankin Remembered in Video: Opening Day of the 65th Congress (1917–1919).”
23Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (2 April 1917): 105–108, 128; “Clark Re-Elected Speaker of House,” 3 April 1917, Atlanta Constitution: 4.
24Hearings before the Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage, Woman Suffrage, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (1917): 56–58.
25Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 122; “House Advances Suffrage Cause,” 19 May 1917, Christian Science Monitor: 3.
26“House Advances Suffrage Cause”; “Suffrage Wins Point in House,” 7 June 1917, Christian Science Monitor: 7; “House Suffrage Leaders Confer,” 4 September 1917, Christian Science Monitor: 7.
27Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (24 September 1917): 7370.
28Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (24 September 1917): 7371.
29Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (24 September 1917): 7372.
30Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (24 September 1917): 7372.
31House Journal, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (24 September 1917): 369; Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 1st sess. (24 September 1917): 7384.
32“Vote on Suffrage in House on Jan. 10,” 19 December 1917, New York Times: 5.
33“Amendments in House,” 12 December 1917, Washington Post: 2.
34“Vote on Suffrage in House on Jan. 10.”
35“Vote on Suffrage in House on Jan. 10.”
36Smith, Jeannette Rankin: 123.
37“Suffrage Wins,” 11 January 1918, Chicago Daily Tribune: 1.
38“House For Suffrage 274 to 136,” 11 January 1918, New York Times: 1.
39Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 January 1918): 771.
40Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 January 1918): 771.
41Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 January 1918): 772.
42Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 January 1918): 787–788.
43Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 January 1918): 781.
44Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 January 1918): 766; Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 2nd sess. (1 October 1918): 10981–10983.
45Carrie Chapman Catt to Edwin Yates Webb, 5 January 1918, Petitions and Memorials, U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary, Record Group 223, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed 25 April 2019, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/74884353.
46Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 January 1918): 771.
47House Journal, 65th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 January 1918): 96–97; “House For Suffrage 274 to 136”; “Suffrage Wins.”
48Kendrick A. Clements, The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992): 161.
49“Suffrage Vote Puts Democrats In Hole,” 2 October 1918, Indianapolis Star: 1.
50Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Party Divisions of the House of Representatives, 1789 to Present”; U.S. Senate Historical Office, “Party Division,” https://www.senate.gov/history/partydiv.htm.
51Congressional Record, House, 65th Cong., 3rd sess. (4 March 1919): 5079.