Following the midterm election of 1916, suffragists believed that congressional approval of a national suffrage amendment to the Constitution was near. Montana voters had elected the first woman to Congress, Jeannette Rankin. Women had won the right of full suffrage in a dozen states, and suffrage measures were on the ballot in 10 others. As suffrage petitions continued to pour into Congress, both national parties adopted planks supporting suffrage at the state level. In the White House, President Woodrow Wilson supported woman suffrage but contended that it was an issue best decided by the states. When the 65th Congress convened in March 1917, senators insisted that “if the president wants [the amendment] to pass…[we will] vote for it.” Then, just as momentum for the amendment was building, a declaration of war threatened to undermine that progress.
When Congress declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917, critics denounced the suffrage movement as unpatriotic. Suffrage must be put aside, they insisted. This was war. Many women—including many suffragists—abandoned the drive for an amendment and threw themselves into the war effort. Across the nation, women rallied to the cause, serving as military nurses, in clerical positions on army bases, and as radio operators and translators. On Capitol Hill, Senate spouses formed a Red Cross volunteer unit, meeting weekly to roll bandages, sew blankets, and provide other material support for U.S. soldiers. Despite calls for them to stand down, however, other suffrage activists saw the wartime experience as opportunity rather than hindrance and continued to pressure members of Congress on behalf of the constitutional amendment.
Among those who continued lobbying throughout the war was Maud Younger, who led the effort for the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Born in 1870 to a wealthy San Francisco family, Younger had helped California suffragists win the right to vote in 1911. Her skills as a lobbyist brought her to the attention of NWP’s Alice Paul, who invited her to join the national campaign in Washington.
Younger took Washington by storm and immediately went to work developing a complex intelligence-gathering operation. Focusing on senators who had voted no on the national suffrage amendment bill in 1914, Younger and other NWP lobbyists meticulously documented every detail of those members’ daily routines on small index cards. If a senator claimed his constituents did not support the amendment, Younger coordinated letter-writing campaigns in his home state. If a senator was known to arrive at his office at 7:30 a.m., Younger had a lobbyist waiting outside his office at 7:29. Some senators responded brusquely to these well-coordinated efforts. “Nagging!” Senator Irvine Lenroot of Wisconsin exclaimed after one such encounter. “If you women would only stop nagging!” The senator’s words stung. “I wondered if he thought…we liked going to the Capitol day after day, tramping on marble floors, waiting in the ante-rooms—sometimes rebuffed, sometimes snarled at,” Younger later recalled. “I wondered if he thought we could do it for anything but a great cause.”
While American doughboys fought for democracy overseas, suffragists adopted wartime rhetoric to criticize powerful institutions at home. They picketed the White House, carrying banners which read, “We shall fight for things which we have always carried nearest our hearts—democracy,” and, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for their liberty?” They were arrested for obstructing traffic and imprisoned at Occoquan Workhouse just outside Washington, D.C., where they staged hunger strikes and endured forced feedings and physical assaults. Press accounts described their brutal treatment at the hands of law enforcement, drawing a stark contrast to Wilson’s wartime goal of “Mak[ing] the World Safe for Democracy.” Public outcry prompted the president to finally call for action. Describing the national suffrage amendment as a vital war measure, Wilson urged members of Congress to support it. On January 10, 1918, the House approved the amendment. The question remained, did suffragists have the votes they needed in the Senate?
To be sure they could answer that question with a resounding "yes," suffrage lobbyists doubled their efforts. Their constant presence at the Capitol irritated lawmakers. Senators complained when suffragists holding banners blocked doorways of the Senate Office Building. Alice Paul patiently explained that the obstruction would continue as long as men continued to block their bill. When suffragists marched down Constitution Avenue and disrupted traffic, Capitol Police arrested them. Senators objected to the “un-American demonstrations” on the Capitol grounds and denounced protestors as “cranks and agitators.” The Washington Post condemned suffragists’ “unlawful assemblages or attacks” on lawmakers as counterproductive. Some suffragists seemed to enjoy provoking the intransigent lawmakers. Determined to see the amendment pass, suffragists ignored the complaints and protests continued unabated.
Some senators, however, appreciated the effort. Andrieus Jones of New Mexico, chairman of the Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage, relied upon the activists to whip votes for the amendment. It’s likely that he shared with them information that he gathered about colleagues who, having voted no in 1914, may be persuaded to change their vote. At the top of that list, no doubt, was Senator William Borah, an influential Republican of Idaho.
A commanding presence in the Senate, Borah was known to be combative, obstinate, and vain. Though he supported suffrage for women—women in Idaho had enjoyed the right to vote since 1896—he opposed a national suffrage amendment, insisting it was an issue best left to the states. When the House approved the measure, Borah immediately announced his opposition. “I am aware…[my position] will lead to much criticism among friends at home,” he wrote a constituent. “I would rather give up the office” than to “cast a vote…I do not believe in.”
In office since 1907, in the wake of the Seventeenth Amendment Borah faced election by popular vote for the first time in 1918. Determined to flip his vote—or unseat him—suffragists coordinated a relentless campaign in Borah’s home state. “Will you get as many people as you possibly can, especially from [Borah’s] own party, to wire him requesting that he vote for [the amendment]?” implored Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association to a friend. Petitions from Idaho constituents poured into Borah’s office, and Republican Party leaders began to worry that the senator’s position would damage party prospects in the fall election. Even former president Teddy Roosevelt weighed in with a personal note to Borah, encouraging him to reconsider his position. As the November election drew near, the typically self-confident Borah had reason to worry about potential defeat.
President Wilson worried, too. He feared that if the Senate, with the Democrats in the majority, rejected the amendment, suffragists would target his party in the midterm election. Wilson decided to take a bold step. On September 30, 1918, he delivered a brief, impassioned speech in the Senate Chamber, pleading with senators to deliver “justice to women.” In particular, the president sought to persuade a coalition of southern Democrats and northeastern Republicans, known as the “unholy alliance,” who opposed woman suffrage for reasons that were by now all too familiar. “Do not force upon [the states] the enfranchisement of those women who are not of our race,” implored one opponent. Others argued that women possessed neither the intellectual nor emotional capacity to make reasoned decisions. Still others chaffed at the thought of relenting to the demands of the so-called “petticoat brigade.”
Having delivered his address, Wilson returned to the White House to wait. On the following day, October 1, the Senate took up the suffrage bill. Suffragists, dressed in white gowns with purple sashes, watched impatiently from the gallery as the final debate began. Supporters offered one last defense of the bill. Women had selflessly supported the war effort, Senator Charles S. Thomas of Colorado observed. “Why do we ask American doughboys to fight for Europeans’ right to self-determination,” Thomas wondered, while “50 per cent of our population is disenfranchised”?
After the debate concluded, Senator Jones successfully beat back efforts to amend the bill, and the roll call began. When the final vote was cast, the amendment fell two votes short of the two-thirds present and voting required for passage, 53-31. Disappointed, Andrieus Jones promised to call another vote before the congressional session ended in March 1919.
Where would suffragists get the two votes necessary to pass the amendment through the Senate—their so-called “Last Trench”? Alice Paul dialed up the pressure on Borah. With the assistance of local women, Paul convinced the Idaho Republican Party to adopt a party plank supporting a national suffrage amendment. Would Borah defy his own state party and continue to oppose the bill? Occupied with war-related measures, Borah remained in Washington in the weeks before the election, but his chances for reelection were looking grim. His projected lead over his opponent had virtually disappeared. In desperation, Borah made an appointment to see Alice Paul. When that fateful meeting concluded, Paul wired a statement to Idaho suffragists: “We have talked over the…situation with Senator Borah, and our understanding…is that he will carry out his platform and vote for the suffrage amendment if elected.” Aware of Borah’s long opposition to the amendment, a few suffrage leaders remained skeptical. Did Paul get Borah’s commitment in writing? Would he indeed support the amendment? While Paul told her lieutenants in Idaho to stand down, Borah wired his supporters to inform them that his position had not changed.
On November 5, 1918, just as Wilson had feared, suffragists punished congressional Democrats for failing to approve the national suffrage amendment. Thanks to his pledge to the National Woman’s Party, William Borah fared better, besting his opponent by nearly 30 points. In March of 1919, Republicans would assume the majority in the House and Senate, and Senator Borah would be among them.
During the lame-duck session that convened on December 2, 1918, Senator Jones scheduled another vote. As the vote drew near, Borah remained coy, issuing no public statements. At a heated Democratic caucus meeting on February 6, South Carolina’s William Pollock joined 19 other Democrats and declared his support for the bill, providing one of the two additional votes needed for passage. Suffragists expected Borah to provide the last vote.
On Monday, February 10, 1919, the Senate prepared to vote. “This is no new proposition before the American people,” observed Senator Pollock as the roll call began. The fate of the bill was soon known. Coming early in the roll call of senators, Borah betrayed Alice Paul and the Idaho suffragists and voted no. When the final vote was tallied, the suffrage amendment fell one vote short of the required two-thirds majority, 55-29. Suffragists seated in the galleries quietly hung their heads. Anticipating that the next Congress would approve the bill, one irritated suffrage leader called the Senate vote a "futile delay…to betray the people.”
The battle was lost, but the war continued. The 66th Congress convened on March 4, 1919, and soon took up the bill. The House quickly approved it on May 21. In the Senate, several newly elected members had publicly pledged their support for the amendment, making the suffragists reasonably confident of its passage. On June 4, 1919, suffragists packed the Senate gallery once again. “There was no excitement,” Maud Younger later recalled. “The coming of the women, the waiting of the women, the expectancy of the women, was an old story.” After so many years of fighting for their rights, suffrage activists in the gallery and across the nation found this final vote to be almost mundane. In a bipartisan effort, senators approved the national suffrage amendment with two votes to spare, 56 to 25. A few minutes later, Vice President Thomas Marshall joined prominent suffragists for a signing ceremony in his office in the Capitol. The amendment had passed a major hurdle; now it would go to the states for ratification.
Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan quickly approved the national suffrage amendment, and other states steadily followed. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to approve, and the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. The woman suffrage amendment had taken decades of hard work and sacrifice on the part of suffragists and a well-coordinated lobbying effort to get it through the House and Senate. Women voted in national elections for the first time in the fall of 1920. The goal of extending voting rights to all women, however, remained elusive, as some states continued to disenfranchise African American women and men well into the 20th century. Four decades later, when the House and Senate approved the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law, Congress completed the job by providing enforcement mechanisms to protect voting rights under the provisions of the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the Constitution.