200 Plus

Coming Down to the Wire

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jan 30, 2019

When the founders drafted the Constitution, they made it possible to amend it but ensured it wouldn’t be an easy process. Two thirds of both Houses of Congress are needed just to propose an amendment before it can be sent to the states, where three-fourths approval is required.

In January 1918, the amendment giving the vote to all American women had cleared the hurdle in the House of Representatives but had failed in the Senate in September, falling two votes short. In the November midterm election of 1918, the Republicans had gained control of Congress and would take over in March 1919; if the lame-duck Senate didn’t reconsider, the process would have to start all over again. To complicate matters, President Woodrow Wilson was in France negotiating the peace treaty ending World War I, in which he wanted to include the League of Nations, a world organization he said would keep the world safe for democracy.

Alice Paul, a Burlington County suffragette and head of the National Woman’s Party, had been trying to put pressure on Wilson to use more of his influence on the Democratic senators who opposed the amendment. On Jan. 27, the Long Branch Daily Record quoted the president when he replied to a group of French women who were asking that support for women’s right to vote be included with his new League of Nations: “You have not placed your confidence wrongly in my hopes and purposes, but perhaps not all of those hopes and purposes can be realized in the great matter that you have so much at heart – the right of women to take their fair share in the political life of the nations to which they belong.

“That is necessarily a domestic question for the several nations. A conference of peace settling the relations of nations with each other would be regarded as going very much outside its province if it undertook to dictate to the several states what their internal policy should be.”

The same day, 70-year-old Mary Nolan burned a copy of the president’s words in front of the White House saying, “President Wilson told the women of France that they had not placed their confidences wrongly in his hopes and purposes. I tell the women of France that the women of America have placed their confidence in President Wilson’s hopes and purposes for six years, and the Party of which he is leader has continually, and is even now obstructing their enfranchisement.

“President Wilson has the power to do for the women of this nation what he asserts he would like to do for the women of other nations. … There are thirty-one days left for the passage of the Suffrage Amendment in this Congress, of which this Party is in control. Let him return to this country and act to secure democracy for his own people. Then the words that he spoke for the women of Europe will have weight and will bear fruit. Sooner or later the women of the world will know what we know – that confidence cannot be placed in President Wilson’s hopes and purposes for the freedom of women.”

Nolan was quickly arrested and sentenced to 24 hours in jail. Doris Stevens, a member of the National Women’s Party, reviewed the situation.

“And so, throughout January and the beginning of February, 1919, the story of protest continued relentlessly. Watchfires – arrests – convictions – hunger strikes – release – Until again the nation rose in protest against imprisoning the women and against the Senate’s delay. Preemptory cables went to the President at the Peace Conference, commanding him to act. News of our demonstrations were well reported in the Paris press. The situation must have again seemed serious to him, for although reluctantly and perhaps unwillingly, he did begin to cable to Senate leaders, who in turn began to act. On February 2nd, the Democratic Suffrage Senators called a meeting at the Capital to ‘consider ways and means.’”

Democratic Party leader and former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan told the press, “Woman suffrage is coming to the country and to the world. It will be submitted to the states by the next Congress, if it is not submitted by the present Congress.

“I hope the Democrats of the South will not handicap the Democrats of the North by compelling them to spend the next twenty-five years explaining to the women of the country why their party prevented the submission of the suffrage amendment to the states.

“This is our last chance to play an important part in bringing about this important reform, and it is of vital political concern that the Democrats of the Northern Mississippi Valley should not be burdened by the charge that our party prevented the passage of the suffrage amendment, especially when it is known that it is coming in spite of, if not with the aid of, the Democratic Party.”

On Feb. 2, papers across the country carried a story about how the executive branch of government was dealing with the women’s suffrage question.

“Plans to picket the Peace Conference whenever President Wilson was in attendance, to post a suffrage guard outside the Murat mansion, and to light suffrage fires in Paris, to burn the addresses of the President simultaneously with their cremation outside the White House in Washington, came to light yesterday when Miss Clara Wold, of Oregon returned from New York, their passports having been canceled by the State Department as they were on the point of sailing to organize the Paris campaign for the national women’s party.”

What were the women guilty of?

“In her trunk, Miss Wold carried the purple material from which to fashion four banners and Miss Morris was entrusted with the letters already prepared in gold colored cloth to form upon them the following inscriptions, in French and English. ‘President Wilson is deceiving the nation when he appears as the prophet of democracy.’”

Who was behind the plot?

“It has been the plan of Miss Alice Paul to send abroad four representatives, but passports were refused two weeks ago to Miss Elsie Hill, daughter of the late Representative E J. Hill of Connecticut and Miss Doris Stevens of Connecticut. … The discovery by the State Department of the real intensions of Miss Wold and Miss Morris both of whom have participated in watch fire demonstrations at the White House was made at the last moment and barely in time to prevent the execution of the plan.”

It seemed the pressure was beginning to wear down the opposition. The Chicago Tribune of Feb. 4 announced, “A final effort to put nation-wide woman suffrage through the present congress will be made next Monday. Senator Jones of New Mexico, chairman of the suffrage committee, gave notice in the senate today he would move next Monday to take up the Susan B. Anthony resolution to submit to the states a constitutional amendment for national woman suffrage. … Unless the senate adopts the resolution before March 4 the favorable action taken by the house more than a year ago will be nullified.”

Alice Paul addressed the importance of the upcoming vote, saying, “This is the last chance the Democratic Party will have to take advantage of the opportunity they have neglected for the last five years to pass the amendment enfranchising the 20,000,000 women of this country. Women recognize that it is entirely in the hands of the Democrats to pass the suffrage measure and will hold them responsible if it is not passed.”

Would the Democratic Party vote yes and become the party supporting the women of America?

Next Week: The vote.


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