Blast from the Past: The 19th Amendment

I’m reposting this post in commemoration of the 88th Anniversary of passage of the 19th Amendment. Know your history. It directs your future.

The 19th Amendment

The final push for elective franchise for women is one of the most riveting tales in American history. As Harriot Stanton Blatch said after the Amendment was ratified:

All honor to women, the first disenfranchised class in history who unaided by any political party, won enfranchisement by its own effort alone, and achieved the victory without the shedding of a drop of human blood.

State-by-State Strategy

For the first 15 years of the 20th century, female suffragists had been working on a 48-state strategy to win the vote. The idea was to campaign for suffrage using new Western states, many of which granted women the right to vote in state elections, as examples to build a consensus state by state to allow women to vote. Once all states allowed women to vote, surely the national government would have to concede the national vote as well, they reasoned. Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and their allies and cohorts thought that plan would take too long and the only way to effectively accomplish the rest of the goals of the women’s movement was to achieve full, national, and immediate suffrage rights for women.

Radicalized in England under the influence of Emmeline Pankhurst, Alice Paul returned to the United States in 1910 to join the fight for women’s equality. Six years later, frustrated by American Suffragist’s state-by-state strategy, Paul with her friend Lucy Burns formed the National Women’s Party. There they began to employ some of the more radical tactics they had learned in England. They staged parades, mass meetings, and hunger watches among other, sometimes even criminal undertakings. The parades are what most people remember, and the image that made its way into the history books.

Silent Sentinels

At the same time, Paul and her allies began to heavily criticize Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic Party for paying lip service to an Amendment they would not take up. The following year, shortly after Wilson was sworn in, Paul began to stage protests outside the White House. The participants called themselves “Silent Sentinels for Liberty” and held up signs demanding the vote for women. They protested every day, except Sunday, for more than two years, even after Wilson voiced support for the amendment.

Silent Sentials for Liberty at the White House

That same year, the United States joined the fight in World War I. Once war was declared, public physical attacks on the Sentinels began to occur. The women refused to relent against the argument that we were at war, and should wait some more. A series of arrests ensued over the next few months, and each time women chose jail time over paying fines. Alice Paul was arrested in October of 1917 and sentenced to seven months for obstructing sidewalk traffic. She, along with many other Silent Sentinels, were sent to Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. There Paul began the hunger strike that nearly cost her her life, but which ultimately helped give us the right to vote.

Alarmed at the state of her health, prison officials began to force feed Paul and several other Sentinels who were striking. Sometimes they used a tube to force liquid into their stomachs. Sometimes they forced maggot infested oatmeal or soup into their mouths, then held them closed. This was all while they were strapped down. My eyes well up with tears even writing about it. But what happened next makes Blatch’s quote at the top of this diary partially untrue. While it’s not often discussed, blood did indeed spill.

Night of Terror

On November 15, 1917, the Warden of Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia ordered 40 of his guards on what is now known as the Night of Terror.

The women were innocent and defenseless. By the end of the night, they were also barely alive. Forty prison guards wielding clubs went on a rampage with their warden’s blessing against the 33 women wrongly convicted of “obstructing sidewalk traffic.” They beat Lucy Burn, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head and left her hanging for the night, bleeding and gasping for air. They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, thought Lewis was dead and suffered a heart attack. Additional affidavits describe the guards grabbing, dragging, beating, choking, slamming, pinching, twisting and kicking the women. (Why Women Vote )

The details of the Night of Terror were the last straw. Public outrage and opposition had been building as news leaked that there were hunger strikes and forced feedings, but everything boiled to a head after the Night of Terror. Everyone, from ordinary folks to politicians in Washington, began to talk about the women and their plight. Demands issued from many quarters that they be released, which they finally were, on November 27th and 28th of 1917, many after nearly half a year in prison.

In January of 1918, Woodrow Wilson announced his support of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, and Congress voted on it soon thereafter, failing the 2/3 majority test by two votes. American women campaigned vigorously that election year to unseat anti-suffragist incumbents, and were successful. The amendment passed the following year, 1919, by a landslide, and began to make its way around the country to be ratified.

War of the Roses

By the summer of 1920, 35 states had ratified the 19th Amendment, and 36 were needed for it to become an official part of our founding document. It came down to Tennessee, and a War of Roses during the dog days of summer. Both pro- and anti-suffrage factions from across America made their way to Nashville to duke it out over votes in the Tennessee legislature. Members of the opposing factions and politicians wore yellow roses to show their support for suffrage, and red roses to show their opposition to suffrage.

On August 18th, amidst a sea of red and yellow roses, the roll call for votes went out, and came back 2 votes shy. Another roll call was made, and this time, Rep. Banks Turner crossed the line to the suffrage side. One vote shy. A third, and final roll call was made, and this time, a young man by the name of Harry Burn, wearing a red rose, crossed over to the suffragists side. Pandemonium ensued.

With his “yea,” Burn had delivered universal suffrage to all American women. The outraged opponents to the bill began chasing Representative Burn around the room. In order to escape the angry mob, Burn climbed out one of the third-floor windows of the Capitol. Making his way along a ledge, he was able to save himself by hiding in the Capitol attic.

When he was later questioned as to why he had voted for it, despite wearing a red rose, he explained that what people saw was the red rose on his jacket, but they didn’t see that in the pocket behind it was a telegraph from his mother in East Tennessee. It read:

Dear Son: Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt. I noticed some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt [Carrie Chapman Catt] put the ‘rat’ in ratification. Signed, Your Mother.
~Febb Ensminger Burn


The 19th Amendment was certified as law by Wilson’s Secretary of State, Bainbridge Colby on August 26, 1920. Bainbridge Colby was a founding member of the United States Progressive Party.

The young women of today—free to study, to speak, to write, to choose their occupation —should remember that every inch of this freedom was bought for them at a great price… the debt that each generation owes to the past, it must pay to the future.
~ Abigail Scott Dunaway


4 comments on “Blast from the Past: The 19th Amendment

  1. virginiaharris says:

    I’m thrilled that Senator Clinton honored the suffragettes, including Harriet Tubman, who was as ardently involved in the suffrage struggle as she was in the Underground Railroad.

    Thanks to the success of Harriet Tubman and other amazing suffragettes, women now have voices and choices!

    But most people are totally in the dark about HOW the suffragettes won, and what life was REALLY like for women before they did.

    “The Privilege of Voting” is a new free e-mail series that follows eight great women from 1912 – 1920 to reveal ALL that happened to set the stage for women to win the vote.

    This is no boring history report. It’s a real-life soap opera!

    Two beautiful and extremely powerful suffragettes — Alice Paul and Emmeline Pankhurst are featured, along with Edith Wharton, Isadora Duncan, Alice Roosevelt and two gorgeous presidential mistresses.

    There are tons of heartache for these heroines on the rocky road to the ballot box, but in the end, they WIN!

    Exciting, sequential 10-minute e-mail episodes are perfect for coffeebreaks, or anytime.

    Subscribe free at

  2. buddhist punk says:

    thank you for posting this. i am now suddenly enraged at the cruel treatment of these women at the hands of misogynists, and I’m not even American!

    now here’s a suggestion: someone should research the names of the warden and guards who were responsible for this torture of innocent women. these soulless individuals were NOT doing their duty, they were being stupid oafs and bullies with weapons. And no, I do not accept that this was the norm for their time. Their actions belong to some medieval past, not late 19th century. their names must be made known and inscribed in the history along with the triumphs of Lucy Burns et al.

    who is up to the task?

  3. […] Blast from the Past: The 19th Amendment: This may be one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. It was originally posted on Daily Kos in March (for Women’s History Month, natch), back when I was still visiting there. It enjoys the #5 slot because people continue to pull this one up on search engines while searching for info on the 19th Amendment. My aunt even sent me an excerpt in e-mail, not know I had written it, so it’s apparently going viral in e-mail somehow. Good. Everybody should know this amazing story. […]

  4. […] What Every Woman Should Know is a bi-weekly series on American Women’s History. The series is weekly in March, which is Women’s History Month. This article has been edited from an original version, which was posted here. […]

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