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A Vote for Women

September 30, 1918

Photo of Suffrage March

On the morning of September 30, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson delivered a speech in the Senate Chamber. Only the second president in the nation’s history to personally appear before the Senate, Wilson was on a political mission. The nation is at war, he reminded lawmakers. “This war could not have been fought…[without] the services of…women.” He implored senators to pass the constitutional amendment providing for women’s suffrage.

Since the Susan B. Anthony Amendment was first introduced in 1878, women had aggressively lobbied Congress to approve it. In 1913 hundreds of activists descended upon Washington. “We want action now,” they chanted as they marched into the Capitol. By 1916 both party platforms supported women’s suffrage. That year, Wilson won reelection, and Democrats gained control of the House and Senate.

At the beginning of the new Congress in 1917, senators insisted that “if the president wants [the amendment] to pass…[we will] vote for it.” The president thought the issue should be left to the states, however, so suffragists focused their efforts on winning over Wilson. They silently picketed the White House, banners in hand, for months on end. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, critics denounced the ongoing protests as unpatriotic. “Suffrage must be put aside,” they insisted. “This is war.” Rather than retreat, suffragists doubled down, hoisting new banners that addressed the president as “Kaiser Wilson.” Washington, D.C., police arrested protestors en masse. In prison, suffragists endured beatings and violent force-feedings. When journalists reported news of their inhumane treatment, Wilson felt compelled to respond.

The president worried that Congress’s failure to pass the amendment had become a political liability for his party. His concern prompted him to personally deliver a speech to the Senate, five weeks before the midterm election of 1918. “Give justice to women,” he pleaded.

The president’s words did not fall on deaf ears. In the fall of 1918, a bipartisan majority of senators supported the proposal, though they fell just short of the two-thirds majority required for constitutional amendments. Perhaps the president’s speech would win the support of senators known to oppose the measure, a coalition of southern Democrats and northeastern Republicans known as the “unholy alliance.” Collectively, they opposed women’s suffrage for a variety of reasons. “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 chafed at the thought of relenting to the demands of the so-called “petticoat brigade.”

Supporters of the amendment grumbled at their colleagues’ intransigence. “Men are selfish, especially in the possession of power,” concluded one California senator. Others noted the hypocrisy of denying women the right to vote during wartime. "Why do we ask American doughboys to fight for Europeans’ right to self-determination," a senator from Colorado wondered, "while 50 per cent of our population is disenfranchised?"

Wilson delivered his short speech for suffrage, then returned to the White House to wait. The following day, on October 1, 1918, the Senate took up the suffrage bill. A clerk called the roll: Mr. Ashurst, aye. Mr. Baird, no. And on and on it went. When Senator Wolcott of Delaware cast the final vote—nay—the amendment fell one vote short of passage. Five weeks later, the president lost his congressional majorities in the 1918 midterm election, in part because of the party’s failure to approve the suffrage amendment.

Woman Suffrage Centennial: The Senate and Women’s Fight for the Vote