Photo: Harris & Ewing, from Library of Congress. Color: Post Emily
In 1918, after the House voted to pass the Woman's Suffrage Amendment, a Senate vote defeated it. Brave women demonstrated against senators whose vote denied women their basic right to participate in democracy. In October 1918, police arrested women outside the Senate Office Building in Washington DC.
How does a group of people who do not have the power to vote gain that power? This question is oddly circular. Those in a position to grant the power got there because people voted for them. So how do the voteless get the vote?
They organize and demonstrate and persuade. The story of 1913-1920 is one of how women gained the power to have their say in the United States government.
Who are these women in the photo? Why are they marching with banners in the streets of Washington, DC, willing to be arrested?
Five things you need to know about the women protesting the Senate.
Getting the last two votes in the Senate — that slow, deliberative body — is a slow process.
1. 1918 so far: House passes amendment, Senate does not.
The long, slow march to pass the Women’s Suffrage Amendment moved from passage in the House of Representatives (January 1918) to the Senate. Suffragists needed 11 YES vote commitments, and they persuaded nine to support passage. Two more to go. Over the summer, progress stalled and stayed stalled, so the National Woman’s Party used their confrontational tactics to prod the President to goad the Senate into action. The senate scheduled the amendment for debate and a vote at the end of September, 1918. President Wilson did an extraordinary thing—during the debate, he came to the Capital, to the floor of the Senate, and to urge its passage as an essential war measure. Wilson’s speech was a significant victory for the suffragists—seventeen months earlier, when the nation entered World War 1, the National Woman’s Party introduced the framing that woman suffrage is a war issue. How does a group of people who don’t have power gain power? Make an argument in such a way that the people in power adopt and spread your argument. The suffragist’s framing was echoed by the President, and his speech was printed in newspapers nationwide. This framing victory would not be enough, though.
The next day, October 1, there was debate on the Susan B. Anthony suffrage amendment. There were motions to alter it. One notable change was introduced by a southern Democratic Senator from Mississippi: Change the suffrage amendment so that only white women would gain the right to vote. That proposal was soundly defeated.
The vote on the Anthony Suffrage amendment failed; it was still two votes shy. It was the first defeat for President Wilson, who had requested Congress to pass many wartime bills. They passed every bill he requested, until this one. Southern senators from the President’s own party ensured a defeat.
2. Senate defeats suffrage just in time for election season
The Senate vote was October 1. The November election was just a month away. There were many reactions. Suffragists from both major organizations: “This is a temporary setback; victory is inevitable.” A newspaper columnist: The Senate will flip. Both parties could take credit for a suffrage victory, but defeat will be blamed on the Democrats. Oh those southern democrats. Democratic Leaders of the Senate: Oh no, we might lose our senate majority. Southern Senators (Jim Crow / Segregationist South): Our seats are safe. We don’t want suffrage for women, because we don’t want black women to vote. Republicans in Senate: Those people from the National Woman’s Party are right. They’ve blamed the Party in Power (Dems) for not getting suffrage passed. That’s a great way to put it; we’ll say that, too. It works for us.
Everyone campaigned. For the past two elections (1914, 1916), the National Woman’s Party deployed a strategy in the western suffrage states (where women already had the vote). How do you gain power? You demonstrate and exercise the power you already have. They voted against Democrats, that is, “the party in power which had failed to use its power to free women.” Their work did not change the outcome, but turned comfortable wins into nail-biters. Hello politicians, do you have your attention yet? They continued this strategy in suffrage states for the 1918 election. Since all candidates in suffrage states supported suffrage, it didn’t matter who won.
In non-suffrage states, both the National Woman’s Party and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA, the conservative 48-state strategy organization) worked on individual campaigns in order to defeat anti-suffrage senators from either party and elect suffrage supporters. (NAWSA would never—never!— picket or engage in “militant” actions, nor campaign against a political party.) All energies were bent on changing the composition of the Senate so that the Anthony Amendment would pass.
3. The Woman’s Party turned their attention on the 34 senators who voted NO.
“Immediately after the defeat in the Senate, and throughout the election campaign, we attempted to hold banners at the Capitol to assist our campaign and in order to weaken the resistance of the senators of the opposition. The mottoes on the banners attacked with impartial mercilessness both Democrats and Republicans.”
We protest against the 34 wilful Senators who have delayed the political freedom of American Women. They have obstructed the war program of the President. They have lined up the Senate with Prussia by denying self-government to the people.
They also directed messages toward specific senators who opposed suffrage. Banners displayed in DC got news coverage in home state newspapers.
There were alteractions over the banners. The Capitol Police seized their banners and arrested the women, locking them in a room in the Capitol building, then releasing them at the end of the day. (No, they didn’t give back the seized banners.) This happened repeatedly. Arrest without charge, held all day. The women took the Capitol Police to court over this—“tell us what the charge is”— and the court said that the detentions were unlawful.
On days the Senate wasn’t in session, members of the Woman’s Party demonstrated in front of the Senate Office Building. The postcard image is from one of those demonstrations. Here are several photographs showing the sequence of events in the demonstration, leading up to their arrest.
This demonstration and arrest was over 1.5 years after the first banner display in public. If arrests happen, so be it. The demonstrations have proven their effectiveness— In one year’s time, the President moved from vague and noncommittal to an avowed supporter of suffrage. Their previous Lafayette campaign served to jump-start a stalled process in the Senate. Sure, there was a lot of censure and ridicule in the newspapers. there is no denying that these tactics moved the President to act. So now they turn on the Senate. Whatever it takes. No quarter. Let that other suffrage group get the glory of a private meeting with the President to bemoan the outcome of that Senate vote. The National Woman’s Party has the satisfaction of having created results.
4. November 1918: The Election, and War’s End.
The November 5 mid-term elections resulted in the House and Senate will be controlled by the GOP. (The newspapers also ran stories about the war —Germany surrenders!) This looked good for passage of the Woman Suffrage Amendment.
The new Congress woujld be different, but there was plenty of time for the current Congress to finish its work during the “Lame Duck” period. 100 years ago, the new congress was not seated until March of the following year. There were months to take up the amendment again in the Senate. Two votes were needed. Still. One senator, appointed just after the election to fill the remainder of a term, looked promising. Maybe it’s down to just one vote. Since the House had already passed the amendment, it was necessary to pass the Senate in the current session of Congress.
The other major event of November was the end of World War 1, which officially ended on Armistice Day, November 11. What would the world look like in this new peacetime?
5. Epilog. 1919.
The President’s December address to Congress included a plea to pass the suffrage amendment. Good. That’s a fine start for this next phase, Mr. President. Now get. to. work. on. it. Win us that last vote. Nope. Having said those fine words, the President immediately set sail for Europe to conduct meetings about creating a lasting peace. The National Woman’s Party did not like it. “Something had to be done quickly, something bold and offensive enough to threaten the prestige of the President” as he acted on the international stage “as a champion of world liberty.” They revived the practice of burning the President’s words (It was a successful tactic at Lafayette Square back in September, producing immediate results.) Each time Wilson spoke in Paris on the topic of democracy, the Women’s Party rang a bell at their headquarters across the square from the White House. Then they took the President’s words and burned them in front of the White House. As long as the President extolled liberty and democratic representation abroad while the women at home did not yet have the vote, the National Woman’s Party highlighted his hypocrisy.
The press reports of these acts reached Europe, goading him to act to gain that last vote for the Suffrage Amendment. A member of the Senate—open to persuasion on the matter—just so happened to be in Europe at the same time as the President. A flurry of coordination by cable across the Atlantic helped spur a meeting between President and Senator. Meeting. Persuasion. Success. Whew.
Now, all that was left was to schedule that vote in the Senate before the session of Congress ends. Though the votes were now present in the Senate, political maneuvering stopped it from coming up for a vote, and the President did too little, too late, to overcome it. Between the anti-suffrage senators who did not want to bring a vote and the incoming majority who wanted credit for passing the amendment, they stalled the measure. No vote in the final days of the outgoing congress. Then the new congress was seated and one of the first orders of business was the Anthony Amendment. The House voted again (passing suffrage by a wider margin this time), and the Senate passed the Women’s Suffrage Amendment on June 4 1919. The states immediately began ratifying it, and 441 days later, the 36th state ratified it, making the 19th Amendment part of the United States Constitution. Women voted nationwide in the presidential election in November, 1920.
- Working Women’s Picket
- We Know We Will Be Arrested Today
- Lafayette, We Are Here
- Senators, We Are Coming For You
Harris & Ewing. Police arresting party demonstrators outside Senate Office Building, Oct. Oct. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
Gallagher, Robert S. “‘I was Arrested, Of Course…’ An interview with the famed suffragette, Alice Paul” American Heritage, Volume 25 Issue 2, 1974
Gluck, Sherna, Ed. From Parlor to Prison: Five American Suffragists Talk About Their Lives. An Oral history. Vintage Books, 1976
Harper, Ida Husted, Ed. The History of Woman Suffrage, Vol 5. Fowler & Wells, 1922. [google books link]
Irwin, Inez Haynes. The Story of the Woman's Party Harcort Brace, 1921. [google books link]
Stevens, Doris. Jailed For Freedom. Boni and Liveright, 1920 [google books link]
Terborg-Penn, Rosalynn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Indiana University Press, 1998.
Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill, Ed. One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement. NewSage Press. 1995.