The Nineteenth Amendment, 1919–1920

In the spring of 1919, Rankin continued her work for women’s rights, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to attend the International Congress of Women in Zurich, Switzerland.52 President Wilson, also abroad negotiating the peace treaty to formally end World War I, called an extraordinary session of Congress to open on May 19, nearly seven months before the customary start of a new Congress.53 Wilson wanted the 66th Congress to address a number of pressing issues, including wartime appropriations, child labor laws, veterans’ issues, and women’s suffrage.54

Representative James Mann of Illinois, the former Republican Leader and one of the most powerful legislators on Capitol Hill, wasted no time putting suffrage on the House calendar. Within the first two days of the new session, Mann, frail from a lingering illness but looking to capitalize on the GOP majority, quickly maneuvered the suffrage measure onto the floor as H.J. Res. 1.55

The House set aside two hours for debate. Nearly everyone assumed the joint resolution would pass, and many speakers simply reiterated arguments from 1918. Members used the opportunity to register final appeals for and against the amendment, and both parties jockeyed to claim credit. Mann led the arguments in support of suffrage. So many Democrats supported the amendment this time around that Mann arranged for Frank Clark, the only member of the Committee on Woman Suffrage who did not support the amendment, to manage the opposition during the debate.56

Notice of ratification from the Governor of Tennessee/tiles/non-collection/E/Essay1_9_Tennessee_Ratification_19th_Amendment_NARA-1.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, meeting the constitutional threshold of passage by three-quarters of the states.
Echoing arguments deployed against the suffrage amendment in January 1918, opponents ran through a list of grievances. According to Clark, the enfranchisement of Black women in the South would produce racial turmoil. Calling African-American women “the real leaders in these matters,” he feared that Black women, having won the right to vote, would “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.”57 Clark tried to revive a ratification deadline of seven years. Supporters of the Nineteenth Amendment were in no mood for this poison pill, however, and voted it down.58

Much as they had the year before, proponents of women’s suffrage drew on the country’s recent experience in the Great War as a principal reason why the amendment should pass. Supporters reminded their colleagues that women had shouldered crushing responsibility and made unimaginable sacrifices during the war. Representative Raker, who had led the Woman Suffrage Committee in the previous Congress, argued that “because of the work women have 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.”59

By 1919 women had won the right to vote in 15 of the 48 states.60 During the House debate, Representatives from those states testified about the experiences back home. Edward Campbell Little of Kansas celebrated the traditional role of women in American society as mothers and homemakers while noting that his state had opened the vote to women seven years earlier to great benefit. “We know of no fireside that has burned more dimly because of any difference of opinion about the use of the ballot,” he said. “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.”61 For Members like Little, women’s suffrage was simply the right thing to do. “The long and the short of the whole matter,” he told his colleagues, “is that for centuries you have treated women 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.”62

“Equal suffrage for the women of the United States is certain to come,” Adolphus Peter Nelson of Wisconsin told the chamber. “It is futile to stem the ever-growing tide in its favor any longer.” If the momentum of the suffrage movement was not enough, Nelson also believed that denying women the right to vote violated one of America’s founding principles. “Taxation without representation should no longer apply to womankind,” he said. “Real democracy is built on equality and justice and a government by the consent of the governed.”63

Unlike the close vote the year before, the House voted on May 21, 1919, in favor of the Susan B. Anthony amendment by a more comfortable margin, 304 to 89.64 Two weeks later, the Senate cleared the amendment 56 to 25, with four votes to spare.65 It took nearly 15 months for the required number of states to ratify the amendment, but in August 1920, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby officially added the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

The effect of ratification was almost immediate. Only two and a half months later, in November 1920, millions of women voted for the first time in the congressional and presidential elections.66 Having secured the franchise, the NAWSA reestablished itself as the League of Women Voters in 1919 and proceeded to mobilize women on a nonpartisan basis as voters with their own unique issues and concerns. Both the Democratic and Republican national organizations formed new units staffed by women to recruit women voters. In addition, women across the country created clubs, often among individual racial and ethnic groups, to educate women voters on issues and candidates.67

In a less obvious way, the Nineteenth Amendment also expanded the very notion of voting rights. Along with opening access to the ballot box, the amendment redefined who could hold public office and who could vote on the floor of the House and Senate. If women could vote in their home states, they could serve in Washington. And if they could serve in Washington, they could shape and vote on national policy.

It is a testament to the larger sense of opportunity inherent in the Nineteenth Amendment that in 1920 the first woman elected to the House after ratification was not someone who had been on the front lines of the suffrage movement, but was instead Alice Mary Robertson of Oklahoma, who had been critical of national suffrage groups and hostile to the idea of women’s voting rights in general. Women had won the right to vote in Oklahoma in 1918, and the state had ratified the Nineteenth Amendment on February 28, 1920. But Robertson, who would also become the first woman to preside over a House proceeding, approached her job in Congress far differently than Rankin. Rankin had gone to Capitol Hill, in part, to represent the interests of women nationally, but Robertson seemed to have no such intention. “I came to Congress to represent my district,” she once said, “not women.”68

Careful observers of Capitol Hill underscored the differences between Rankin and Robertson, questioning how it was that one could follow the other as the first two women in Congress. Only days after the 1920 elections, for instance, an editorial suggested, “This election taught us that women in enormous numbers will attend the polls, but it has given scarcely a hint of what they will do with politics.”69

Despite the misconception that women would participate in politics as a bloc, the successful campaigns of Rankin and Robertson demonstrated that women would vote and serve on their own terms, that women had long been active in politics, and, regardless of their strategies and beliefs, that women were going to continue to redefine what was possible in America, this time with the ballot in hand.

In the near term, the Nineteenth Amendment ushered in gains in representation and political power, but the struggle to ensure that all women had the right to vote and an equal opportunity to do so was just beginning. The draconian policies among the states, which had long prevented people of color from voting, remained in effect after ratification in 1920. For the next 45 years, everyday people pushed back against a system that sought to deny them equal standing and equal access to the ballot box. Those barriers finally started to fall amid the civil rights movement with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Only then did the country move closer to fulfilling the promise of universal suffrage.

But in the two decades after the Nineteenth Amendment, the first generation of women to serve in Congress carved out a space on Capitol Hill that would grow bigger and more powerful with every passing year.

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Footnotes

52“Women Go Abroad to World Congress,” 10 April 1919, New York Times: 16.

53“Congress Called by President to Meet May 19,” 8 May 1919, New York Times: 1.

54Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st Sess. (20 May 1919): 68–69.

55“Suffrage Comes at Once to Front,” 21 May 1919, Christian Science Monitor: 4; Herbert F. Margulies, Reconciliation and Revival: James R. Mann and the House Republicans in the Wilson Era (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996): 199.

56Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (21 May 1919): 78–79.

57Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (21 May 1919): 90. For additional context, see Catherine E. Rymph, Republican Women: Feminism and Conservationism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006): 23–24.

58Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (21 May 1919): 93.

59Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (21 May 1919): 82.

60Corrine M. McConnaughy, The Woman Suffrage Movement in America: A Reassessment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013): 211–212.

61Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (21 May 1919): 80.

62Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (21 May 1919): 80.

63Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (21 May 1919): 83.

64House Journal, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (21 May 1919): 42. A one-vote discrepancy exists in the vote total listed in the Congressional Record (304 to 90) and the House Journal (304 to 89) from May 21, 1919. During the roll call vote, New Jersey Representative Amos Henry Radcliffe was mistakenly listed as having voted in the negative. The mistake appeared in the published Record but was corrected in the Journal of that day. The vote total does not reflect the fact that one Member voted “present” and nearly three dozen others did not cast a vote.

65Senate Journal, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (4 June 1919): 51.

66Rymph, Republican Women: 24; Ellen Carol DuBois, “What Activists Today Can Learn from the Women’s Suffrage Movement,” 8 March 2019, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/03/08/what-activists-today-can-learn-womens-suffrage-movement/.

67Anna L. Harvey, Votes without Leverage: Women in American Electoral Politics, 1920–1970 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998): 1, 4–5; Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore and Thomas J. Sugrue, These United States: A Nation in the Making, 1890 to the Present (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015): 148–150.

68Mayme Ober Peak, “‘Miss Alice’ Is Content After One Term to Retire to Her Swakola Farm in Oklahoma,” 4 March 1923, Washington Post: 75.

69“Miss Alice,” 6 November 1920, Boston Daily Globe: 10.