Tuesday, June 4 should be recognized as one of our important historical dates. One hundred years earlier in 1919, the 19th amendment was finally passed by the U.S. Senate, with a two-vote margin.
Following the Civil War, women worked for more than 20 to get full voting rights into state constitutions. Considering their major contributions through Civil War — raising money for supplies, doing major work with the Sanitary Commission, setting up hospitals, training nurses and more — they felt sure they would be recognized as active, deserving citizens and be granted the right to vote.
Prior to the Civil War, there had been no thought of the franchise other than through State constitutions. After the war, however, a new amendment expanding the franchise via the federal constitutional arose in Congress — but it covered only for freed black men.
Confronted by this new gender-based exclusion from voting, suffrage-minded women protested “class legislation” and demanded that women be included in the 14th amendment.
Susan B. Anthony stated: “Up to this hour we have looked only to State action for recognition of our rights, but now, by the results of the war, the whole question of suffrage reverts to Congress and the United States Constitution. The duty of congress at this moment is to declare what shall be the true basis of representation in a republican form of government.”
With submission of the 14th Amendment pending, Miss Anthony and others collected tens of thousands of names on petitions and sent them to Congress. On May 10, 1866, the first action was taken toward an amendment to the constitution concerning woman suffrage. The first section of the 14th amendment said all the right things to lead women to believe they would gain the vote:
• Section 1: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
• Section 2: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the executive and judicial officers of a state, or the members of the legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such state, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such state.”
The 14th amendment was ratified and became effective on July 9, 1868.
The following year the 15th amendment was submitted: “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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Forbidding three kinds of discrimination, it was silent on gender. Those who had been striving for two decades to obtain suffrage for women protested by every means in their power against this second constitutional discrimination. They implored and demanded that the word "sex" should be included in this amendment — which would have forever settled the question, just as the omission of the word "male" from the 14th amendment would have settled it.
By this point Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony had seen how, through constitutional amendment, an entire class could be enfranchised, and now, they were determined to use this power on behalf of all American women.
On Jan. 10, 1878, Senator A.A. Sargent of California presented the following brief amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex."
Throughout the next 40 years, Sargent’s amendment, later known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, was presented to every congress. With much work by the women, congressional hearings we're conducted in every one of those 40 years — but little meaningful effort by congressmen.
Women looked to a 16th Amendment as the next step to enfranchisement, but it wasn’t to be — taxes claimed that amendment: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”
The 16th Amendment was ratified Feb. 3, 1913, and the 17th amendment, ratified two months later, allowed voters to cast direct votes for U.S. Senators (senators had previously been chosen by state legislatures). And then came the 18th amendment prohibiting sale of alcoholic beverages, ratified Jan.16, 1919.
Those long years were called the doldrums, because so little progress was achieved toward passage of a woman suffrage amendment. The effort, work, time, money, lifetimes spent to achieve each small step forward was enormous. But those years were coming to an end.
Since the 1880s, women had been gaining full voting rights in a number of the Western states, and the interests in women suffrage began taking a new turn when these states’ elected representatives — suffrage supporters — became full members of congress. These included the first woman elected to congress, Jeanette Rankin from Montana.
Still battling for the vote, women now looked to a new 19th Amendment in their long-delayed hopes for enfranchisement. A new generation was stepping up — and they did so forthrightly, with parades, marches and soapbox speeches.
The 19th amendment, as we know it, finally passed the House of Representatives on May 21, 1919, after two hours of discussion, with 42 more "ayes" than were needed for the required two-thirds majority. It was then placed on the Senate calendar for June 3 and, in short order, several senators lined up with revisions — down to the last whimpering breath the opponents tried to water it down the language.
Sen. Underwood, for example, offered a revision to have the ratifications by conventions instead of legislatures. Sen. Phelan, of California, wanted to amend this by requiring Underwood’s conventions to be called the first week in December.
Sen. Harrison, of Mississippi, tried to have the word “white” inserted in the original amendment. Sen. Gay introduced an amendment in which the right of enforcement was given to the various states and congress was excluded. Representing the nation’s endless debate over states rights versus cooperative federal government, from the revolution down to the present day, Sen.Gay’s amendment did not pass. In fact, all these amendments were defeated by large majorities.
The roll was called at 5 p.m. on June 4, 1919, and the vote was announced: 66 "ayes" and 30 "nays." It had passed the Senate by two votes.
On it went for ratification by the states. With a goal to have the amendment passed in time for women to vote in the November 1920 presidential election, but with the difficulty of many state legislatures having to call a special session to vote on it, suffragist women still had a momentous battle ahead of them.
With progress one slow step at a time, as history has shown, patience was a major feature of the woman suffrage movement. When suffragists first realized that a constitutional amendment was the preferred path to take, the 41st Congress was in session. When the Susan B. Anthony Amendment was finally ratified, the 66th congress was in session.
Ratification of the 19th Amendment is one of the most exciting stories in U.S. history. The first state to ratify the amendment was Illinois on June 10, 1919, followed the same day by Michigan and Wisconsin.
The story ended with the dramatic climax of a battle in Tennessee (and it was a battle) to ratify — and thus kill — the amendment. After surviving by a single vote, because a young Tennessee legislator decided to vote as his mother advised, the battle in Tennessee ended Aug.18, 1920. The U.S. Secretary of State signed it Aug. 26, 1920.
It is time for us all to come join the celebration that is now building to commemorate the 72-year struggle for women’s right to vote. The centennial arrives on Aug. 26, 2020.
Sylvia Coffey is a member of the Frankfort Women Suffrage Centennial Celebration Group. Coffey used the following sources in her column: "History of Woman Suffrage" and https://www.gutenberg.org/files/29878/29878-h/29878-h.htm.