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President Wilson, The Ladies and June 4, 1919

By Barbara A. Warkentien

“The right of citizens to vote shall not be abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.”
U.S. Constitution 19th Amendment

Almost unbelievable! On JUNE 4, 1919, the U.S. Senate passed the 19th Amendment, the House having overwhelmingly passed it just two weeks earlier. It had been over 41 years since the distinguished California Senator Arlen A. Sargent first introduced the Amendment (Jan. 10, 1878) on behalf of its authors Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The bill had been introduced in the Senate each year since 1878 only to languish in a file cabinet in some committee office. While the Amendment still needed to be ratified by ¾ of the states, Congress had finally taken the leadership to ensure that women would be empowered to actively participate in self-government.

Although Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the founders of the American Suffragist movement, endured slurs and bitter personal attacks; no one could have anticipated the brutal cruel assaults women experienced during the last six years (1913-1919) of the quest for Congressional action. The final struggle for suffrage centered on three key players: President Woodrow Wilson, Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul, leaders of two suffragist organizations.

President Wilson was true to his southern roots. A gentleman, a supporter of states rights, he loved all the ladies in their place, of course. The polling booth just wasn’t one of those places. In fact, in his youth he had called suffrage “the foundation of every evil in this country.” Carrie Catt, a gracious socialite, was the dedicated leader of the suffrage movement begun by the late Susan B. Anthony. Alice Paul, an idealistic young Quaker was adamant that women would not be denied their rights as Americans to vote.

With 15 states already granting enfranchisement to women at the time of his election in 1912, Wilson could not openly oppose suffrage, but he did refuse to endorse it. To him it was a matter best left to the states. Catt agreed with him. Not Paul. She was determined that there should be a Constitutional amendment for women just like the 15th, which granted men of all races the right to vote; furthermore, many state laws were inconsistent. In some states, women could vote for President, but not for Congressmen, for governor, but not for local mayors.

Paul began her campaign by grandly upstaging the President. When Wilson arrived at Washington’s Union Station on March 3, 1913, for his inauguration as President of the United States the following day, only a sparse crowd of loyal supporters greeted him.

It seems the crowds were all on Pennsylvania Avenue watching the magnificent Women’s Parade of 8,000 women and men from across the nation and the world carrying banners and performing colorful tableaux in support of suffrage. To add insult, the suffragists, not the President were the top story in the nation’s papers on inauguration day. In fact, the New York Times called the parade “one of the most impressively beautiful spectacles ever staged in this country.”

To his credit, Wilson met with both Paul and Catt, but he gave them little encouragement. He was busy with other matters such as improving working conditions for labor. Catt joined Paul in encouraging ladies nationwide to seek support from their Congressional representatives.

When the U.S. entered WWI, Catt suspended her group’s suffrage campaign and encouraged women to actively join the war effort. Not Paul. She remembered that women were not rewarded for their full support of the Civil War. She organized the “Silent Sentinels” to picket the White House daily demanding the vote. All went well until the Sentinels carried signs defaming the President as “Kaiser” Wilson in front of a Russian delegation. Enraged at the insult, crowds demanded imprisonment of the pickets.

Public opinion is fickle and once people learned of the harsh treatment suffered by the imprisoned women; sympathy was quick in coming. No one should be forced to stand all night with her hands above her head chained to the ceiling, nor be given soiled clothes to wear, nor be fed through a tube forced down her nose, nor be beaten—such barbaric cruelty should not exist in the land of the free. Eventually, all charges against the women were dropped. Released from prison, the women rejoined their fellow suffragettes in carrying banners at the White House.

Events favorable to suffrage were coming together. New York state granted women the vote in 1917. The Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, ended World War I combat and Wilson finally realized that supporting suffrage was a wise political move. Ignoring Paul, he acknowledged Catt and the women who had “earned” the vote through their outstanding service during the war. He urged Congress to approve the 19th Amendment, which it did on June 4, 1919. The story of the ratification while not as brutal is full of intrigue, hard work, a little chicanery and one good boy. Finally, the 36th state (Tennessee) ratified the Amendment on August 18, 1920, enabling all eligible women across the United States to vote for the first time on November 2, 1920.