Women’s Suffrage Fails Again

Feb 06, 2019

For almost 50 years, American women had been trying to add an amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting them the right to vote; in February 1919, it appeared that one of its biggest hurdles, the U.S. Senate, was about to be cleared. On the fourth, the Pittsburgh Post summed up the situation.

“National woman suffrage, enfranchising 20,000,000 women, appears nearer realization than at any time since the equal suffrage pioneers first launched their fight for a voice through the vote.

“Five senators who were either opposed to the suffrage amendment or not voting when it made its last appearance in the Senate, only to lose by two votes, are now counted among the ‘pros’ instead of the ‘antis’ and are expected to vote for the measure when it is brought up again next Monday. … No one believes that the amendment will fail of ratification by the states if it once passes the Senate and is submitted to the country.”

Alice Paul of Moorestown, N.J., president of the National Woman’s Party, had organized the picketing of President Wilson since 1917, believing he had given the amendment public support but had not worked for it behind the closed doors of the Democratic Party. Since January 1919, the pickets had been burning Wilson’s speeches on democracy in front of the White House. The day before the Senate vote, they carried a banner that read, “Why does not the President insure the passage of suffrage in the Senate to-morrow? Why does he not win from his party the one vote needed? Has he agreed to permit suffrage again to be pushed aside? President Wilson is deceiving the world. He preaches democracy abroad and thwarts democracy here.”

A New York Tribune reporter was there.

“President Wilson was burned in effigy by the militant suffragists in front of the White House this afternoon. Forty-seven women were arrested and, refusing to give bail, were held in the district jail until to-morrow, when they will be sentenced. … The figure of the President, which was a plaster statuette such as is sold in souvenir stores, was carried from suffrage headquarters.”

As the banner was carried out, “An enormous crowd filled Pennsylvania Avenue during the demonstration and afterward surged angrily toward suffrage headquarters, but the arrival of police reinforcements prevented trouble. Mrs. Havemeyer was the first woman arrested.

“The moment the figure of the President was placed in the urn she began her speech. ‘No other people in the world have suffered as American women …’ she began. Immediately two policemen took her by the arm and moved her toward the waiting patrol wagon.

“Turning on the step, however, she managed to add: ‘Every Anglo-Saxon government in the world has enfranchised its women. Even Germany has woman suffrage … in Russia too, and Hungary and Austria, the women are enfranchised, the women are taking this way of voicing our deep indignation that while our government preaches democracy for Europe we are still deprived of a voice in our government.’”

When it was all over, “When the survivors returned to their headquarters Miss Paul counted noses and found that of the seventy-five who went forth only twenty-eight had returned. The district police refused to give out the names of those arrested.”

Doris Stevens was one of Paul’s closest advisers. She later wrote, “… the police fell upon the ceremonies, and indiscriminate arrests followed. Women with banners were taken; women without banners were taken. Women attempting to guard the fire; women standing by doing nothing at all; all were seized upon and rushed to the patrol. … When the ‘Black Marias’ were all filled to capacity, nearby automobiles were commandeered, and more patrols summoned. And still not even half the women were captured.”

The next day the Senate chamber was packed for the vote. Debate on the amendment was limited. Sen. Pollock of South Carolina, trying to convince fellow Southern Democrats to vote for the amendment, spoke saying, “For a century and a half we have had the privilege of the vote for one-half of our people and slavery for the other half. … The pending Amendment does not in any way interfere with State rights. It will have no effect whatever on the race question. It would not mean negro supremacy in the South. The white women would hold control over the negro vote just as the white men do with the vote of the negro men.”

The Central New Jersey Home News explained, “The vote followed the presentation of amendments proposed by Senator Williams (Miss.) providing for the limitation of women suffrage to white women and by Senator Frelinghuysen (N.J.) providing drastic regulation governing admission of alien women to citizenship. Both amendments were ruled out of order by Vice-President Marshall.

“In offering his amendment to the proposed amendment Senator Frelinghuysen, who had offered the same amendment at the time of the last test said: ‘I favor suffrage when proper protection is afforded for the worthy women. We should either amend this resolution or modify the immigration laws. There are a large number of alien women who have acquired citizenship solely by marriage, and these should not be permitted to vote. There are hundreds of these women, and probably millions.’”

Doris Stevens analyzed the final vote and concluded, “When the roll was called, there were voting and paired in favor of the amendment, 63 senators; there were voting and paired against the amendment 33 senators. The amendment lost therefore by one vote. Of the 63 favorable votes 32 were Republicans and 31 Democrats. Of the 33 adverse votes 12 were Republicans and 21 Democrats. This means that of the 44 Republicans in the Senate 32 or 73 percent voted for the amendment. Of the 52 Democrats in the Senate 31 or 60 percent voted for it. And so, it was again defeated by the opposition of the Democratic Administration, and by the failure of the President to put behind it enough power to win.”

While progress in Congress on giving women the vote seemed to proceed at the speed of molasses, a few blocks away The New York Times reported, “Twenty-five members of the National Woman’s Party, including Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer and three other women from New York, who participated in the demonstration in front of the White House yesterday afternoon, when President Wilson was burned in effigy, were arraigned before Judge Hardison in the District Police Court this morning and sentenced to five days each in Jail. Another woman received a sentence of two days. All announced that they would go on a hunger strike.

“In all there were thirty-nine women brought to the Police Court for a hearing on charges of building fires on Government property, standing on the coping around the White House, or attempting to make disorderly speeches. … The militants apparently were not perturbed by the action of the court and showed no regret for what they had done. Mrs. Havemeyer, in fact, stoutly defended their actions.”

If Alice Paul was correct, the Democratic Party had blown its chance to support American women’s right to vote. Would the Republican Party step up and receive that honor?

Next Week: Never say never.


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