The Close Fight for Women’s Suffrage

November 2, 2018   •   By Adam Winkler

The Woman’s Hour

Elaine Weiss

IN THE SUMMER OF 1920, the United States was transformed when, after a more than 70-year struggle, women finally won the right to vote. Yet, as author and journalist Elaine Weiss illustrates in her lively and incisive account of the final, decisive battle in Tennessee to ratify the 19th Amendment, change is always partial and incomplete. For while gaining the vote certainly elevated the status and political influence of women, the ideas and attitudes that fostered opposition to women's suffrage are still with us — and they continue to profoundly shape American policy and attitudes on sexuality, democracy, and equality.

Before the ratification debate roiled Nashville, the women's suffrage movement had already registered important victories. At least 19 states had extended the vote to women as a matter of state law, and women’s rights advocates like Susan B. Anthony were well known. A constitutional amendment to guarantee women the right to vote in elections nationwide had nonetheless proven elusive. Before the Civil War, suffragists had worked hand-in-hand with abolitionists to enfranchise both blacks and women, only to be abandoned after the conflict with the explanation that it was “the Negro’s hour.” The resulting 14th and 15th Amendments outlawed the disenfranchisement of African Americans but only threatened punishment for states that denied the vote to “male” citizens.

In 1919, spurred by World War I and growing public protests, Congress finally sent a women's suffrage amendment to the states for ratification. The approval of 36 states was needed. By the time Tennessee lawmakers met to take up the question, all but a handful of states had acted. Thirty-five states had voted to ratify the amendment but a number of states, especially in the South, rejected it — or, in the spirit of opposition, delayed. In all likelihood, Tennessee was the 19th Amendment’s last hope, and ratification there was anything but certain.

Weiss begins her story with three women traveling to Nashville on separate trains to organize the campaigns for and against ratification: Carrie Chapman Catt, the founder of the League of Women Voters and the head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the foremost advocacy group fighting to enfranchise women; Sue White, a representative of the militant National Woman’s Party, which had split off from the NAWSA and employed more controversial, in-your-face tactics; and Josephine Pearson, the astute, well-educated leader of the anti-suffrage movement in Tennessee. The opening is symbolic of the narrative to come. Even though Tennessee’s decision would ultimately be made by male lawmakers, The Woman’s Hour is about the women — their debates, their decisions, and their efforts to exert political power and shape the law even in the absence of the franchise.

Weiss gives suffrage advocates like Catt and White their due but, like cinema villains, Pearson and the antisuffragists (“Antis”) have the more dynamic and interesting roles in the story. Many women fought vigorously against enfranchising women, certain that such reform would destroy the family and sully the fairer sex. Women, these women said, were unfit for political life. Weiss appropriately treats the women Antis with respect and nuance, trying to uncover their sincere and genuine views. She nonetheless demonstrates how the political activism of these women disproved so many of the assumptions upon which their opposition to suffrage equality was built. Women could lobby, organize, and play political hardball with the best of them.

Much of the politicking in Tennessee was done not in the statehouse but at the Hermitage Hotel, a grand, Beaux Arts building just opened blocks from the capital. The rooms had the most modern conveniences, like telephones, and were occupied by lawmakers who had traveled from across the state. Both Catt’s NAWSA and Pearson’s Antis set up their respective headquarters in the hotel. While visitors today are warmly welcomed by a wealth of memorabilia from the competing campaigns, in the summer of 1920 the lobby was filled with lawmakers and lobbyists. Any legislator uncertain of his vote would receive an invitation to the “Jack Daniels Suite” — a room set up to ply them with Tennessee’s finest whiskey and encourage them to vote against suffrage (or at least leave them too hungover to vote at all).

The liquor industry was but one of the established business interests that fought against women's suffrage. Long before Citizens United freed corporations from campaign spending limits, several of Tennessee’s major businesses worked hard to defeat ratification of the 19th Amendment. The textile manufacturers feared women would fight to end profitable child labor, while distillers wanted lawmakers who would refuse to enforce Prohibition, which had just gone into effect due in no small part to women’s political agitation. The rules of democratic debate were fair game for Tennessee’s corporations to try to manipulate for profit.

As Weiss details with her fast-paced narrative, the battle to give women a measure of equal citizenship was deeply infused with partisanship and self-interest at nearly every turn. For many elected officials, support for suffrage turned less on principle than on how the reform was thought to affect the next election. From President Woodrow Wilson, a Southerner who personally opposed suffrage until reversing course on the eve of his reelection campaign, to Albert Roberts, Tennessee’s waffling governor who sought to avoid calling the legislature into session, the prospect of so many new voters was risky. Those 27 million women might vote for someone else, a reasonable worry for politicians like Wilson and Roberts who had previously failed to support suffrage wholeheartedly. Yet the same self-interest that led individual politicians to balk had the opposite effect on the two political parties, both of which endorsed suffrage. Neither could risk losing all those women.

The basic right to cast a ballot remains a subject of partisan dispute and manipulation. Both major political parties draw election district lines with exacting precision to ensure the majority party can’t lose, robbing voters of the opportunity to participate in meaningful, competitive elections. Elected officials choosing their voters instead of the other way around is a perverse form of republican democracy. Voter identification laws, which target a type of fraud (voter impersonation) that is exceptionally rare, continue a tradition dating back to the era of Jim Crow where voting barriers are erected that impact primarily racial minorities and the poor under the guise of preserving the integrity of elections. It’s not just about race though, as the groups affected are thought more likely to vote Democratic.

Race influenced the women's suffrage debate in Tennessee and elsewhere during ratification. If the specter of women voting was not sufficient to frighten lawmakers, Antis like Pearson insisted that the 19th Amendment would necessarily enfranchise black women too. The logic was dubious in an era when blacks were excluded from voting by literacy tests, poll taxes, and intimidation. (Even after the 19th Amendment was ratified, Tennessee’s polling places would not see significant numbers of black women at the polls until the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.) Yet the ratification debate took place in an era of hardening racial lines; Wilson had just segregated the federal workforce and Jim Crow laws were flourishing across the South. The possibility that African Americans would touch their voting machines, much less have a small say in government, was too much for some.

Tennessee had fought on the side of the Confederacy and the suffrage debate was shaped by the powerful themes of states’ rights and opposition to federal power. Given the history of Reconstruction, when the federal government exercised oversight over state voting and allowed African Americans to be elected to public office, any federal law or constitutional amendment on the right to vote was toxic. Each state should be able to pick and choose for themselves who should participate in their elections, opponents argued, and even if Tennessee thought women should vote that view should not be foisted on sister states that had voted against ratification.

Antis claimed the vote would bring about not only a political revolution but also a social one, and suffrage became an early battlefield in what we call today the “culture wars.” Although the 19th Amendment would formally give women the right to show up at the polls and cast a ballot once or twice a year, opponents argued that suffrage would inevitably hasten the moral decline of the country, destroy the traditional family, and obscure the gender roles said to be established by the Lord himself. In much the same way that religion is invoked today against LGBT rights and marriage equality, suffrage advocates had to overcome fervent opposition by religious leaders who argued women’s place was in the home. In 1895, famed suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton attempted to reimagine Scripture to promote equality with the publication of the Woman’s Bible, but the book was denounced as blasphemy from the pulpit and most suffrage advocates, including Catt, tried to distance themselves from it. During ratification, Antis were determined to cast the 19th Amendment as an attack on religious believers and Pearson set up an exhibit on display at the Hermitage Hotel of anti-suffrage memorabilia, including the book labeled now as “Mrs. Catt’s Bible.”

What were the constellation of motivations behind support for suffrage? Weiss, with her keen eye focused on the story’s villains, perhaps gives less attention to the variety of interests that came together to advance votes for women. Her portraits of suffrage advocates, both famous and little known, however, are detailed and balanced. Throughout the book there are hints of other more traditionally powerful forces that might have supported reform, such as a speech Catt delivers to the Kiwanis Club warning that Tennessee’s business image would be hurt by failure to pass the amendment. Such concerns raise the specter of current fights over transgender bathroom access, where the threat of losing conventions, trade shows, and major sporting events has swayed some anti-gay lawmakers to back down. How did the dynamics of the marketplace help, and not just hurt, suffrage?

Liberals today are again trying to amend the Constitution in the service of democracy, with groups like Common Cause, Public Citizen, and American Promise proposing a 28th Amendment to end corporate money in politics. Such efforts are easy to dismiss as hopeless, but women's suffrage reminds us that amendments often take decades of continuous advocacy. One of the daunting challenges facing current reformers, however, is that times have changed in one very important way. The woman's hour came at a time when Americans eagerly embraced amendments as a way to work around a conservative Supreme Court and entrenched interests, with the 16th Amendment (allowing income taxes), the 17th Amendment (direct election of senators), and the 18th Amendment (prohibiting alcohol) all added in the decade prior to the 19th. Today, the amendment process is moribund, and no significant amendment has passed in half a century. Even as we have enfranchised many voters, the ability of We the People to reshape the Constitution seems less potent than ever.


Adam Winkler is a professor at UCLA School of Law, where he specializes in American constitutional law.