On the morning of September 30, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson hoped that his trip to Capitol Hill would change the course of American history. In a 15-minute address to the Senate, he urged members to adopt a constitutional amendment giving American women the right to vote. The House of Representatives had approved the amendment months earlier, but Senate vote counters predicted that without the president’s help, they would miss the required two-thirds majority by two votes.
Until the end of the Civil War, nearly every state prohibited women from voting. The 1868 and 1870 ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which provided voting rights for African-American men, spurred women’s rights advocates to seek a women’s suffrage amendment.
The first such amendment was offered in the Senate in 1868, but it got nowhere. Ten years later, the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections held hearings on a renewed proposal. As suffragists pled their cause in the packed hearing room, committee members rudely read newspapers, or stared at the ceiling. Then they rejected the amendment.
In 1882, as pressure mounted, the Senate appointed a Select Committee on Woman Suffrage, which favorably reported the amendment. Opposition forces, including a solid bloc of southern senators, derailed that proposal, and the many that followed, because of their concern that it would extend voting rights to African-American women. Others worried that newly enfranchised women temperance advocates would use their votes to outlaw the sale of alcoholic beverages.
By 1912, the number of states that allowed women to vote had risen to nine—mostly in the West. In January 1913, a delegation of suffragists presented to the Senate petitions signed by 200,000 Americans.
By 1918, President Wilson had dropped his previously indifferent attitude and fully supported the constitutional amendment. In his September 30th speech to the Senate, he cited the role of women in supporting the nation’s involvement in World War I. “We have made partners of the women in this war,” he said, “Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil, and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Despite his oratory, the president failed to pry loose the needed two votes and the amendment again died.
Finally, in 1919, a new Congress brought an increase in the ranks of the amendment’s supporters, permitting adoption of what would become the Constitution’s Nineteenth Amendment—52 years after it was first introduced in the Senate.