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Valley Vignette             June 2020 column

Women Win the Vote in the Country

By Beverly Lane

It took over 70 years for women to win the right to vote and the campaign’s final years included World War I and a devastating flu pandemic. August 26, 1920 was the date the Susan B. Anthony amendment was formally added to the United States Constitution.  Throughout the country there were well-deserved celebrations and in 2020 we recognize this important centennial during another pandemic.

As women won the vote in one western state after another, the eastern and southern states lagged behind and anti-suffrage forces grew in power. Southern legislators certainly didn’t want to add black women to the voting rolls. They were already involved in the Jim Crow era,fighting against any civil rights for black Americans.  And black women leaders --  such as Ida Wells who wrote about and publicized the horrifying southern lynchings and Mary Church Terrell who organized women’s rights organizations like the National Association of Colored Women -- were not about to back down.

This 1915 drawing by Henry Mayer from Puck is called “The Awakening.” It shows Columbia bearing the torch of women’s equality from the West.

The Awakening, 1915

In New York, always a battleground for women’s rights, two referendum attempts were made to win women’s franchise.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter Harriot Stanton Blatch worked diligently on the 1915 failed effort with parades, political lobbying, movies and other means.  Finally, in 1917, organizer extraordinaire Carrie Chapman Catt adopted many of California’s campaign techniques and led the New York suffrage referendum to success.

Woman Suffrage New York City Parade

1917 New York City parade with NAWSA leaders Carrie Chapman Catt in white hat and Dr. Anna Shaw in academic cap and gown

Catt became President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1916 and changed their focus from the exhausting state-by-state suffrage effort to pursuit of a national amendment. At the same time militant efforts by Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party raised the attention of national leaders. Paul and Lucy Burns had trained with Britain suffragettes and, impatient with the Suffrage Association’s moderation, used non-violent, militant methods to pursue the Susan B. Anthony (19th) amendment.  They were the first group to picket the White House with their dramatic and effective “silent sentinels.”  Even as America entered the Great War, the Woman’s Party continued its advocacy which led to arrests, jail terms, hunger strikes and forced feeding well documented in the press.

Silent Sentinels in front of the White House
Silent Sentinels in front of the White House


In October of 1918, Catt lay sick in bed with the flu which by some accounts killed 200,000 people that month. The momentum which the Suffrage Association and the Women’s Party had begun to see was being squelched as people were ordered to stay at home and stop public gatherings. “These are sad times for the whole world, grown unexpectedly sadder by the sudden and sweeping epidemic of Influenza,” Catt wrote in a letter to suffrage workers across the country. “This new affliction is bringing sorrow into many suffrage homes and is presenting a serious new obstacle in our referendum campaigns and in the Congressional and Senatorial campaigns.”

Nevertheless, as Susan B. Anthony had said, they knew that failure was impossible.  Catt’s persuasive arguments and Paul’s in-your-face efforts finally persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to support suffrage and press Congress to pass the nineteenth amendment in the summer of 1919.  The next step was ratification by three-fourths (36) states.  California became the 18th state to ratify on November 1, 1919, during a special session called by Gov. William Stephens.  Only two legislators opposed, one because he thought the special session was too expensive and the other because he thought it should be a state, not federal, decision.

Alice Paul
Alice Paul

As with any amendment, the last state campaigns to ratify three-fourths approval were the most challenging. The Tennessee story is compelling.  Catt came to Tennessee help bolster the effort and later wrote that, in all her decades of campaigns, she had never seen anything like the battles there – bribery, lies, alcohol, threats-- the state capitol had it all.  The Senate approved the amendment but the house was evenly split, with legislators wearing red (anti) or yellow (pro) roses to show their positions.  The youngest house legislator, Harry Burn, wore a red rose because he thought his constituents were opposed. He had grown up on a ranch managed by his college-educated, widowed mother. When it came to a final vote, he voted “yes” and supported woman suffrage, making Tennessee the 36th and final state to ratify.  This astonished advocates on both sides, with the galleries erupting in applause from suffragists and antis yelling their objections. He finally had to flee the raucous chambers.

This is what Burn said the next day:

I want to state that I changed my vote in favor of ratification first because I believe

in full suffrage as a right; second, I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify; and third, I knew that a mother's advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.

Final certification put the Susan B. Anthony amendment into the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920, and added 26 million potential new American voters.



You are invited to view the new centennial celebration exhibit at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley, Women Win the Vote in California and the Country, 205 Railroad Ave., Danville.  Hopefully, it will be open this summer, with masks and physical distancing expected.



Alisha H. Gupta, How the Spanish Flu Almost Upended Women’s Suffrage,  NYTimes, April 28, 2020; Jean H. Baker, Votes for Women.

LWV VOTE c 1920s (002)