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Countdown In Tennessee, 1920
The hour-by-hour suspenseful story of the climactic struggle for equal voting rights for women
December 1978 | Volume 30, Issue 1
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
At 5 P.M. on June 4, 1919, when the Sixty-sixth Congress yielded up the two-thirds majority required for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, a victory celebration among American woman suffragists seemed in order. After all, twenty-one successive Congresses had previously rejected this federal Suffrage Amendment, and it had taken over seventy years of petitioning, lobbying, politicking, and, most recently, picketing by four generations of right-to-vote crusaders to bring the struggle for enfranchisement of women to this high ground.
But the battle-weary, campaign-wise suffrage forces did not celebrate. In the headquarters of Carrie Chapman Catt’s National American Woman Suffrage Association at 171 Madison Avenue, New York, the joy was restrained. The NAWSA women remembered how often their brave labors to win full suffrage state by state through amendments to state constitutions had met with heartbreak; they remembered how regularly their stubborn skirmishes to win the half-a-loaf of partial suffrage (voting in presidential or municipal elections only) that was sometimes possible through state legislative enactment had ended in disappointment; they remembered how all of this had led inevitably to the concerted push for federal amendment action. And in remembering, they knew that total victory still had not been won. In the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party just off Lafayette Park in Washington on that June night, there was business as usual among Alice Paul’s select, young, banner-bearing color guards. They remembered how their silent and dramatic pro-Amendment demonstrations in the halls of Congress and at the gates of the White House had outraged, then intrigued, and finally touched the conscience of the American public; they remembered how this had helped overcome the last bastions of congressional resistance. And vet thev knew thev could not nause to celebrate.
For the long-fought-for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment by Congress in June, 1919, meant only the capture of a beachhead. The final battle in this nation’s longest and most civil “war,” the battle for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, still lay ahead. And up the forty-eight hills once more, all the way—that battle must be won in the states. State by state. To complete adoption of the Amendment now being submitted by Congress to the forty-eight states required ratification by legislatures in three-fourths of those states. The Suffs, as headline writers liked to call them, had to win in no fewer than thirty-six legislatures, while their opponents, the entrenched and well-heeled Antis, could kill the Amendment by squashing it in just thirteen legislatures. And behind the Antis’ formally organized battalions—a National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (for ladies) and American Constitutional League (for gentlemen)—stood the suffragists’ real and most powerful enemies, a shadowy conglomerate of special interests referred to by the suffragists as the whisky ring, the railroad trust, and the manufacturers’ lobby. Suffragist historian, Ida Husted Harper, once explained the how and why of their sinister manipulations: “The hand of the great moneyed corporations is on the lever of the party ‘machines.’ They can calculate to a nicety how many voters must be bought, how many candidates must be ‘fixed’ how many officials must be owned. The entrance of woman into the field would upset all calculations, add to the expenses if she were corruptible, and spoil the plans if she were not.”
Although no time limit for completion of ratification had been written into the Nineteenth Amendment (cynics were already predicting it would take twenty years), there was no time to lose if women’s votes were to count in the upcoming 1920 elections, a matter, as the Suffs often proclaimed, of patriotic pride no less than simple justice. In a world we had helped make so safe for democracy, democratic America could not lag behind. Women already voted in twenty-six other nations. (Including Germany! And Russia!!) More than that, the memory of American women’s contributions to Allied victory in World War I—their crucial work on farms and in offices, hospitals, and munitions factories—was rapidly fading, and with the country longing to return to what would soon be labeled “normalcy,” suffrage forces knew that psychologically it was action now or never.