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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
Thus it was that, at 6 P.M. on Wednesday, June 4,1919, just one hour after the decisive U.S. Senate vote on the Nineteenth Amendment, the redoubtable, twice-widowed, sixty-year-old Carrie Chapman Catt, heiress to the mantle of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, veteran of more than thirty years in the suffrage movement and leader of its 2,000,000-member “traditional” wing, was hard at work in her office at NAWSA headquarters. She was methodically sending out telegrams to governors of all states where legislatures had already adjourned in that off-year of 1919, urging them to call special sessions to act on ratification as soon as possible. By midnight, the serenely efficient Mrs. Catt also had dispatched messages to each of the forty-eight state suffrage auxiliaries, exhorting them to put their long-planned ratification campaigns into high gear and reminding them, where necessary, to keep after their governors. Only when all of her own telegrams had gone out did Mrs. Catt read the congratulatory messages pouring in, among them a twoword cable from President Woodrow Wilson, in France for the Paris Peace Commission: “Glory Hallelujah!”
Alice Paul, too, was pushing on with single-minded intensity that Wednesday night. But the quiet, dedicated, thirty-five-year-old Quaker social worker, who had gone to prison as an activist convert to the votes-for-women cause in England a decade earlier and now was leader of an estimated twenty-five thousand women in the “militant” wing of the American movement, was not to be found in her office. She had boarded a train and was heading west to join her field workers in a whirlwind tour of the several states where legislatures were still in session and where, beginning early the next morning, suffragists would be demanding immediate ratification.
In years gone by, Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul had been contending rivals for the allegiance of American suffragists. The groups they led, the sprawling, well-established, persevering NAWSA, and the smaller, more maneuverable, less predictable Woman’s Party, had only recently been bitterly divided over tactics—particularly over the effectiveness of White House picketing to “educate” an initially reluctant President Wilson on the need for a federal Suffrage Amendment and the responsibility of party leadership to achieve it. Now, however, their strategies meshing by unpremeditated design, the rivals seemed to be taking this last giant step for womankind together.
A corps of impassioned lady orators charged to state capitals to warn the legislators that ratification was the first step toward socialism, free love, and the breakup of the American family.
It augured well for the climactic struggle ahead.
The first six ratifications came in an eight-day period: Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, Ohio, New York, Illinois. Letter writing and lobbying, speech making, and fund raising intensified. In the next seven weeks another seven states ratified. As summer wore on, still the Suff s campaigned —staging rallies, conducting polls, issuing press releases.
The Antis mobilized in kind. A corps of impassioned lady orators, headed by a woman attorney from Yonkers, New York, charged to state capitals as needed to warn the populace in general and legislators in particular that ratification was the first step toward socialism, free love, and the breakup of the American family. One Southern governor, Ruffin G. Pleasant of Louisiana, publicly sought a union of thirteen Anti states to prevent ratification.
By mid-September the pace of ratification had slackened. The suffragists were particularly distressed by the failure of Far Western states, whose own female citizens had long enjoyed full suffrage, to come to the aid of voteless women elsewhere. Of these, only Montana had ratified. So the Suffs, as was their habit when coping with disappointment, redoubled their efforts—more meetings with party leaders, more pleas for special sessions, more volunteers out rounding up pledges of support among more thousands of legislators.
By New Year’s Day, 1920, the total had reached twenty-two hard-won ratifications. Then, in late January and early February, clustered as if to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Susan B. Anthony on February 16, there came a bouquet of ten more ratifications. (It was Susan B. Anthony, most venerated and undeviating of suffrage leaders, who had put on paper the exact words of the federal Suffrage Amendment when it was first introduced in the Forty-fifth Congress in 1878 and then had watched its regular defeat in each session thereafter until her death in 1906—murmuring, according to suffragist mythology, “Failure is impossible!”)
Only four more states to go! Yet it was still too soon to celebrate. Or relax. The opposition was growing ever grimmer, the odds longer, the gains more costly.
In Oklahoma, Miss Aloysius Larch-Miller, a prominent and gifted young suffragist, ill with influenza, disregarded her doctor’s orders and left her sickbed to debate the state’s leading anti-suffragist politician at a state Democratic convention. Two days later she was dead. But her eloquence (plus her sacrifice) had won some decisive switch-over votes in the Democratic-controlled state legislature. On February 27, Oklahoma became the thirty-third state to ratify.