In 1913 suffragists opened a new chapter in their battle to amend the Constitution. They believed that the results of the 1912 election presented new political opportunities. Party control in the Senate changed for the first time in 20 years, and voters sent Democrat Woodrow Wilson to the White House. Alice Paul, a seasoned activist and a national leader in the movement, planned a series of public events to grab the nation’s attention, beginning with a massive suffrage parade in the nation’s capital, followed a few months later by the so-called “Siege of the Senate” petition drive.
On March 3, 1913, on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, women and men from across the nation, including a few U.S. senators, prepared to march from the Capitol down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Department of Treasury building near the White House. Anticipating a massive turnout, Congress had directed the District of Columbia’s superintendent of police to prevent interference with the suffrage parade. African American suffragists, calling for the same rights that had been extended to black men in 1870 with the Fifteenth Amendment, lined up to march. White suffragists hastily conferred and then instructed black women to march in a segregated group at the back of the parade. That morning, leaders of the parade peacefully departed the Capitol grounds as planned, but as they turned up Pennsylvania Avenue, a surging crowd of spectators blocked their passage.
Mayhem followed. Suffragists later reported that they endured lewd comments from spectators “drunk enough for the lockup.” Women claimed to have been physically assaulted while police stood idly by. Helen Taft, wife of outgoing president William H. Taft, watched the chaos unfold from an observation platform before quickly retreating to the White House. One suffrage leader charged that “Hoodlums [had been] given possession of the streets.” As violence escalated, the War Department was forced to call in the cavalry, which arrived too late to establish order. A subsequent Senate investigation, which drew upon dozens of eyewitness accounts, concluded that “uniformed and…special police acted with more or less indifference while on duty.” The committee blamed law enforcement for failing to ensure public safety but carefully avoided “singl[ing] out any particular individual for reproof or condemnation.” The D.C. chief of police was later forced to resign his post.
With public sympathy for the suffragists soaring, the Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage submitted its recommendation that the Senate approve a constitutional amendment. “In this Republic the people constitute the Government,” the committee concluded in its report of June 13, 1913. The committee introduced S.J. Res. 1, a bill to amend the Constitution to allow women to vote. Progress! It was now time for the next step in Alice Paul’s carefully planned attack on Congress: the Siege of the Senate.
On July 31, 1913, members of the Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage greeted enthusiastic suffragists at a rally in Hyattsville, Maryland. “We welcome you to the national capital as the representatives of hundreds of thousands of patriotic men and women of the [nation],” shouted Senator George Chamberlain of Oregon to boisterous cheers from the crowd. Some attending the rally that day had driven thousands of miles to hand-deliver their petitions to members of Congress. When the speeches concluded, suffragists and senators piled into automobiles and drove the last leg of their journey—six short miles—to Washington, D.C.
At the Capitol, women crowded into narrow Senate corridors as the carefully planned “Siege of the Senate” began. In the Marble Room, an ornate meeting area near the Senate Chamber, they jostled for space to present petitions bearing more than 75,000 signatures to their senators. When the Senate convened a short while later, senators who supported suffrage rights quickly took to the floor and introduced petitions for women of their home states. Giving women the vote, Reed Smoot of Utah observed reassuringly, “has made no daughter less beautiful, no wife less devoted, no mother less inspiring.” Even senators opposed to female suffrage, feeling pressure from the lady lobbyists, offered petitions. “I wish to say that I am opposed to the passage of the amendment,” explained John Thornton of Louisiana, before obediently submitting a petition. “Whatever may be my personal view on this matter,” James Martine of New Jersey confessed, “I would be a veritable coward [should] I not present this petition.” Senator Robert Owen of Oklahoma, a member of the Senate’s Committee on Woman Suffrage, implored his colleagues to consider the suffrage issue “with [an] unbiased mind, free from prejudice or passion.”
Owen, a committed suffragist, understood that activists were growing impatient. For more than three decades, they had persistently—and politely—lobbied their representatives in Congress for the right to vote. Most senators had listened courteously and had dutifully accepted the petitions but had done little to advance the cause. By 1913 nine states had adopted full suffrage for women, and more than a dozen others had extended partial voting rights. Yet the goal of adopting a constitutional amendment remained elusive, blocked by a coalition of opponents from both political parties.
Despite the well-planned lobbying efforts, therefore, considerable opposition remained, with opponents offering a variety of arguments against woman suffrage. Some insisted that the measure undermined states’ rights. “Under our form of government, with its 48 sovereign republics, all of these questions [of elector qualifications] are, in my opinion, properly and inherently State questions and not Federal questions,” explained Senator Porter McCumber of North Dakota. “I am one of those who believe that the privilege of voting ought to be controlled by each State,” insisted Senator Nathan Bryan of Florida. “It is wholly wrong for Arizona to say to Maine who her voters shall be.”
In committee hearings and during floor debates, anti-suffragists also expressed concerns about the prospect of extending suffrage to all women, concerns driven in part by demographic changes in the United States. Since the mid-19th century, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from nations around the world had established homes in the United States. Would newly arrived immigrants gain citizenship and also enjoy the right to vote in federal elections? And the issue of race, rarely off the table during any debate of this time, became a major component of the battle over woman suffrage. Some senators were willing to consider suffrage rights for white women but insisted on denying those rights to African American women. The “suffrage cause draws upon itself the burden of the race question in the South,” Idaho senator William Borah explained to one suffragist. “You will never carry the required thirty-six states for a constitutional amendment,” he insisted, “until you repeal the Fifteenth Amendment.” Nor were debates about race confined to southern states. “If Chinamen are allowed to vote [in Oregon]…why should not my wife or daughter vote?” inquired Senator Harry Lane of Oregon.
Anti-suffragists feared that casting ballots would distract women from their homemaking responsibilities and predicted that giving women the vote would increase divorce rates. Suffragists would abandon their children, they claimed. Anti-suffragists implored lawmakers not to allow a small minority of “feminists,” “agitators,” and “socialists” to dictate choices for the rest of women—a majority of whom, they argued, did not want to vote.
Those who supported a national suffrage amendment moved to reassure their Senate colleagues that they had nothing to fear by extending voting rights to women. “The State in which I live has already adopted woman suffrage,” Senator Lane explained. “We have learned to have no fear of their participation in matters of public concern.” Others implored their colleagues to embrace change. “Why does convention, precedent, and custom deny to women the most precious privilege of citizenship?” inquired Senator Miles Poindexter of Washington.
The Senate debate dragged on, month after month. In late winter of 1914, even suffrage supporters conceded the futility of their task. “I am now inclined to think that [the Constitutional amendment] can not secure the requisite majority,” acknowledged Senator Moses Clapp of Minnesota. “Friends of the measure do not hope to pass it,” Borah confided to Bertha Green of Mountain Home, Idaho. “The measure was introduced simply for the purpose of discussion.” On March 5, 1914, Senator J. K. Vardaman of Mississippi made a final effort to break the impasse. He proposed amending the woman suffrage amendment to repeal the Fifteenth Amendment.
On March 19, 1914, for the second time in Senate history, senators prepared to cast their vote for a constitutional amendment to provide for woman suffrage. First, senators handily defeated Vardaman’s proposal to repeal the Fifteenth Amendment, 19-48. Then they defeated, with a 21-44 vote, a second proposal by Mississippi’s John Sharp Williams to amend the woman suffrage amendment to provide that “the right of white citizens” would not be denied on account of sex. Finally, the Senate voted on S. J. Res. 1, the constitutional amendment to provide for woman suffrage. Approval required two-thirds of senators present and voting. The tally fell 11 votes short of that threshold—35 senators approved, and 34 opposed.
Failure—but now senators were “on record” on the issue of woman suffrage. During the next few years, suffragists would use that roll-call tally to devise a renewed lobbying strategy. They would carefully target those 34 senators who opposed the measure. If they could not be persuaded to change their vote, then suffragists would work to defeat them at the polls. Just as victory came into sight, however, a congressional declaration of war threatened to postpone their plans.