100 years ago, women’s suffrage passed in what was hardly a sure thing

Without cameras or ceremony, and with the stroke of a steel pen in the privacy of his home on the morning of Aug. 26, 1920, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby scratched his signature onto a proclamation the women’s suffrage movement had been working toward for three-quarters of a century.

The 19th Amendment had become a part of the United States Constitution, and because of that, American citizens could no longer be denied the right to vote on the basis of gender.

“The era of woman suffrage was over,” wrote Ellen DuBois, author of numerous books on the history of women’s suffrage. “The era of women working their way up and through the political process had begun. As one suffragist put it, it was the ‘dawn of woman’s political power in America.’ ”

And so, the Roaring ’20s began — with a raised female voice.

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”


The complex, winding journey to the ballot box for women took many twists and turns. Women’s suffrage overlapped with abolitionist and temperance causes. An American president’s opinion on the matter turned 180 degrees. The amendment actually received a pivotal boost from World War I, not to mention a young Tennessee legislator acting on the advice of his mother and providing a pivotal vote.

It had come so close to failing.

The final product reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

“Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Notably, the amendment’s wording is virtually identical to that of the 15th Amendment (ratified in 1870) which, instead of the word “sex,” reads “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Tuesday marked the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, which was anything but a sure thing. After barely achieving passage through Congress, the proposed amendment faced its toughest test. It needed the consent of 36 states to be ratified.

“There was nothing inevitable about the success of the women’s suffrage moment at [that] moment,” Ms. DuBois said, adding, “One could say it could easily have been defeated.”

Women playing a more active role in America’s political life was seen as a radical idea at the time. Although, over time, the crusade gathered momentum, the National Woman’s Party and National American Woman’s Suffrage Association faced anti-suffragist organizations.

President Woodrow Wilson had been in the anti-suffragist corner. But the women’s movement had a good sense for public relations, and applied pressure on him by picketing outside the White House and taking part in marches, demonstrations and hunger strikes.

“They were really masters of political spectacle, of imagery,” Colleen Shogan, vice chair of the Woman’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, said on a C-SPAN program Sunday morning.

What may have changed the minds of the president and others about granting women the vote were their contributions to America’s fight in World War I. Mr. Wilson announced his support of the suffrage amendment in 1918.

“It was very hard for Woodrow Wilson and for others to advocate democracy abroad and realize they were disenfranchising over 20 million Americans at home,” Ms. Shogan said. “The hypocrisy of that rhetoric became very apparent.”

The decisive battleground was the Tennessee State Legislature in Nashville, where the fate of suffrage was ultimately decided. After passing in the state senate by two more votes than needed, drama unfolded in the Illinois House of Representatives, where suffragists filed into the balconies overlooking the legislative hall on Aug. 18, 1920.

“When the roll call was called women began to sob,” The Chattanooga News reported in that evening’s edition. “The tension was [so] great that the members were affected to still silence.”

After a motion to table the amendment failed, the speaker called for a ratification vote — aye or no.

“Up until the last minute, suffragists did not think they had the votes,” said Ms. DuBois.

They were wrong.

Rep. Harry Burn, a freshman Republican who at 24 was the youngest member of the House, had been counted as being in the anti-suffragist camp. However, in a stunning turnaround, Burn provided the tie-breaking vote, “Aye.”

The ayes had it, and the measure passed.

What accounted for the change of heart? Mr. Burn later explained he had received a letter from his mother, Febb, asking him to be a “good boy” and listen to Carrie Chapman Catt, the leader of the suffrage movement in Nashville.

“We women must remember we are no longer petitioners, we are no longer wards of the nation, we are no longer subjects of this country and we mustn’t act as though we were,” Ms. Catt was quoted as saying by The Sun and New York Herald after the ratification.

The suffrage movement can be traced at least as far back as to 1848, when the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, N.Y. It produced a Declaration of Sentiments that stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”

The local movement

Mary Stackpole of Riverhead was a leader of the local Suffrage movement. (Credit: Suffolk County Historical Society.)

Prior to the 19th Amendment’s adoption, New York was one of 15 states that had already allowed women to vote. New York voters passed that measure 53.9% to 46.1% on Nov. 6, 1917. Women’s suffrage passed in Suffolk County (6,923 to 5,483) and Southold (689 to 556) but failed in Riverhead (376 to 310) and Shelter Island (74 to 64), according to The Suffolk County News. The newspaper reported that the 1917 elections “which but for the contest over equal suffrage would have been dull and uninteresting, brought a surprising victory for the ladies.”

A Riverhead-based newspaper, The County Review, which along with The Suffolk County News is a predecessor to the modern day Riverhead News-Review, reporting on the 1917 elections, wrote: “The friends of suffrage were active in nearly every district in the county. In Riverhead and other villages there were women watchers at the polls and on the streets women all day gave out little circulars reminding the voters to cast their ballots for woman suffrage.”

The paper added: “In Riverhead town old-time politicians said they had never remembered a more quiet election. If it had not been for the women working for suffrage a stranger in town would never have known that an election was taking place.”

Riverhead had been visited by the most famous women’s rights activist of all, Susan B. Anthony, in 1894 while she campaigned for women’s suffrage. Ms. Anthony, who was 74 at the time, attended a constitutional amendment convention in Riverhead.

“She was absolutely all over the place, trying to get everyone to get out there and say, ‘We want our vote,’ ” said Riverhead Town historian Georgette Case.

The Long Island Traveler reported that at that convention Ms. Anthony “gave three potent reasons for intrusting women with this power. 1. To give her equal opportunities in the world of work. 2. To give women tax-payers correlative right of representation. 3. For personal considerations — she is able, competent and fitted for the responsibility.”

Then, the paper reported, following a benediction, “the largest audience that ever gathered in Suffolk Co. to consider the lifting of unjust restriction from a large population of its best citizens dispersed.”

Ms. Anthony died 14 years before the 19th Amendment passed.

The County Review’s account of a 1918 election included this rather silly paragraph: “After a careful investigation it has been ascertained that there was no foundation for the statement of an official at one of the local polls that a young woman asked for a mirror and a powder puff before she came out of the booth after voting.”

In 1919, The County Review wrote: “Election Day was a hustling day in East Marion. The women showed their colors and did their duty at the polls. Those who said that women would not know how to vote have, according to all reports, changed their minds. They can inform some of the men.”

“The suffrage and civil rights movements [were] not about creating new rights,” Bob McWhirter, a constitutional attorney, said in a lecture this past January. “It was about getting rights recognized. That’s what the whole struggle is, the recognition of rights, not the creation of new rights.”

The New York Times quoted suffragist leader Alice Paul, reacting to the 1920 ratification, as saying, “August 26th will be remembered as one of the great days in the history of the women of the world [and] the history of this republic.”