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.
This article has been cross-posted to The New Agenda.
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.
Advancing from the West
For the first 15 years of the 20th century, suffragists had been working on a state-by-state strategy to win universal suffrage. 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 the states allowed women to vote, surely the national government would have to concede the national vote as well, they reasoned. They were successful in getting suffrage for women in many western states before the final push came, and it is fair to say that the hard work of these western women in some ways helped make passage of the amendment possible.
Alice Paul and Lucy Burns thought the state-by-state 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 and Burns formed the National Women’s Party. With the NWP 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.
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.
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 the nation was at war, and women 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. Paul and many other Silent Sentinels were sent to Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. There Paul began the hunger strike that nearly cost her life, but which ultimately helped give us the right to vote.
Alarmed at the state of their health, prison officials began to force feed several Sentinels who were striking. With the women strapped down to restrict their movement, sometimes prison officials used a tube to force liquid into their stomachs, sometimes they forced maggot-infested oatmeal or soup into their mouths, then held them closed. Alice Paul had lived through similar force-feedings in England when she had worked with British Suffragists, and thought this new attack was a turning point, as it had been there. 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 his guards on what is now known as the Night of Terror.
On that night, forty prison guards, police clubs in hand, went on a rampage against the 33 women convicted of “obstructing sidewalk traffic.” They beat Lucy Burn, chaining her hands to the cell bars above her head and left her hanging for the night, bleeding and gasping for air. They smashed Dora Lewis’ 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.
The details of the Night of Terror were the last straw. Public outrage and opposition had been building as news slowly 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 the women be released, which they finally were, on November 27th and 28th of 1917, many after nearly half a year in prison, most in very poor health.
In January of 1918, Woodrow Wilson announced his support for 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. 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