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Constitution Day 2019 | Woman Suffrage Centennial

"We the Undersigned": Suffragists Petition the Senate

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances," a practice rooted in colonial government. Long before the ratification of the Constitution, British subjects in the colonies petitioned local assemblies—and sometimes the King of England himself—to address concerns. Eager to enhance legitimacy and expand jurisdiction, colonial governments valued this correspondence and usually responded promptly to petitioners' requests for assistance. Following ratification of the Constitution, the new federal Congress convened in New York City in the spring of 1789 and continued the practice of hearing petitioners' claims. Just 10 days after the Senate achieved its first quorum for business, senators heard a petition from David Ramsey asking for the exclusive right to sell his book, History of the American Revolution. As petitions from other citizens arrived, Congress ensured the practice would continue by including the right to petition in the First Amendment.

Whether demanding attention for a personal claim like Ramsey's, or requesting legislative action on behalf of a group of citizens, the act of petitioning provides individuals, even the disenfranchised, with a "voice" in government. For decades after the nation's founding, the Senate received a steady stream of petitions, but the flow became a flood in the 1830s when abolitionists inundated Congress with antislavery petitions. Inspired by the abolitionists, suffragists also began to petition Congress for a constitutional amendment extending to women the right to vote. It took more than 40 years of protesting and politicking—and thousands of petitions—but in 1919 suffragists finally convinced the Senate to pass this landmark legislation, sending it on the road to ratification.

Below is a sample of petitions received by the Senate during the long congressional debate over woman suffrage.

Memorial of the American Equal Rights Association, 1867
Memorial of the American Equal Rights Association, 1867
Prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and Lucretia Mott, petitioned Congress during the Reconstruction era to extend the "rights of suffrage and citizenship" to all, without regard to race or sex. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution (ratified in 1868 and 1870, respectively) granted citizenship to people "born or naturalized in the United States," and prohibited states from disenfranchising voters "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude," but they did not extend voting rights to women.
Petition of Ladies Literary Club of Grand Rapids, 1904
Petition of Ladies Literary Club of Grand Rapids, 1904
In 1904 Michigan senator Julius Caesar Burrows received this petition from the Ladies Literary Club of Grand Rapids. Petitioners objected to a proposal to organize territories in the Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma) then pending before the Senate Committee on Territories. The bill, they argued, "threaten[ed] injustice to the pioneer women" of the region by permitting suffrage restrictions based on sex.
Petitioners of Mt. Vernon, Washington, 1913
Petition of citizens of Mount Vernon, Washington, in favor of woman suffrage, 1913
The Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage recommended the passage of Senate Joint Resolution 1, a constitutional amendment to grant woman suffrage, in June 1913. To secure its passage, suffragists organized a national petition drive that summer. Petitions to the Senate poured in, including this one from men and women of Mt. Vernon, Washington. Despite their efforts, when the Senate voted on the measure in 1914, it fell 11 votes short of the number required for passage.
Resolution of the Rhode Island Union Colored Women's Clubs, 1916
Resolution of the [Rhode Island] Union Colored Women's Clubs Supporting the Federal Woman Suffrage Amendment, 1916
By 1916 women could cast ballots in federal elections in a dozen states, as well as several countries around the world. Encouraged by these developments, suffragists across the nation, including women of the Rhode Island Union Colored Women's Clubs, petitioned their senators to support a federal amendment to the Constitution granting woman suffrage.
Petition from women of Middletown, Connecticut, doing farm labor, 1918
Petition from women doing farm labor in Middletown, Connecticut, in favor of suffrage, 1918
When Congress declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917, many women rallied to support the war effort. These farmworkers from Middletown, Connecticut, petitioned Senator George McLean to support the woman suffrage amendment, suggesting that woman suffrage was compensation for their wartime service.
Petition from Citizens of Twiggs County, Georgia, 1918
Letter from Citizens of Jeffersonville, Twiggs County, Georgia to Georgia Senators, 1918
As the popularity and influence of the woman suffrage movement grew, antisuffragists borrowed tactics from their opponents' playbook, including organizing petition campaigns. Many antisuffragists, like these petitioners of Twiggs County, insisted that the issue "should be settled by and through the action of each State for itself."
Enrolled Act No. 1, State of Wyoming, 1919
Resolution of the State of Wyoming in favor of woman suffrage, 1919
Wyoming was the first territory, and later, state, to enfranchise women. This enrolled bill from the Wyoming state legislature supporting "woman suffrage by Constitutional Amendment" was presented to the Senate on February 10, 1919. Later that day, when the Senate voted on the so-called Susan B. Anthony Amendment, the proposal fell one vote short of the number required for passage.