On June 4, 1919, women suffragists packed the Senate visitors’ gallery. They had come to witness what they hoped would be a historic event: Senate approval of an amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote. Though they believed they had secured the support of two-thirds of the senators, they waited anxiously for the roll-call vote.
Their concerns were well-founded. Since the first suffrage amendment had been introduced in Congress in 1848, the Senate had posed the greatest obstacle to its passage. In the ensuing 71 years the House of Representatives had passed the constitutional amendment a number of times, but it had always failed to gain Senate approval.
Suffragists intensified their efforts in 1913. On March 3, 1913, the day before the inauguration of president-elect Woodrow Wilson, suffragists organized a massive demonstration, with some 8,000 supporters marching from the U.S. Capitol along Pennsylvania Avenue to the Ellipse at the White House. Under the direction of Maud Younger of the National Woman’s Party, activists in Washington confronted a stereotype held by many legislators and publicly expressed by Senator James Reed of Missouri that “women don’t know anything about politics.”
Younger and her staff developed a sophisticated lobbying strategy including letter-writing campaigns to elected officials in Congress by woman suffrage supporters in members’ home states. One senator promised to vote for the amendment if Younger would stop the flow of mail that flooded his office and overwhelmed his staff. Perhaps Younger’s most successful strategy proved to be the development of a “congressional card index” comprised of index cards inscribed with all public and private details about legislators that suffragists could obtain. If the card index indicated that a senator always arrived at his office at 7:30 a.m., they would arrange to have a lobbyist waiting outside his office door at 7:29. They also found it helpful to know as much as possible about senators’ mothers. “Mothers continue to have strong influence over their sons,” Younger explained. “Some married men listen to their mothers more than to their wives.”
By 1919 the opposition to a constitutional amendment in the Senate seemed to be waning, prompting Maud Younger to boast: “Twenty-two senators have changed their position since I came to Washington.” Still, the amendment had come up for debate earlier that year and failed to pass. On the afternoon of June 4, suffragists waited with bated breath to see if their lobbying efforts would pay off. Would the amendment suffer a similar fate today? When the amendment passed by a vote of 56 to 25 the public galleries roared in celebration. In reviewing the tactics that led to this victory, including decades of rallies, pickets, and petitions, the New York Times paid special tribute to Younger and her activists: “In the hands of determined women,” concluded the Times, “a full card index of politicians is mightier than pen or sword.”
Following state ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, women voted in national elections for the first time in 1920.