by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the long campaign to give American women the right to vote, the issue of suffrage gained significant ground at the state level, especially in the West. It was in the territories that the first successes were struck, beginning with Wyoming in 1869 and then Utah following the next year. Washington gave women the right to vote in state elections in 1883 and Montana did so four years later. Wyoming became the first state to allow females to vote in 1890, with Colorado, Utah and Idaho following over the next several years.
Fourteen years elapsed before Washington embraced women suffrage in 1910 and California followed suit the next year. Nine states did so through 1918 and there were several who limited the franchise to females in presidential elections only, starting with Illinois in 1913. Five states elected to go this route in 1917 and six more in 1919 just before the 19th Amendment extended women’s right to vote throughout the nation.
The President during this late phase of woman suffrage was Woodrow Wilson (1856-1921). Elected in 1912, Wilson concentrated his efforts in his first term on many domestic and foreign issues, but, despite the growing movement for women’s voting right, the president devoted little time to the issue and it was not a high priority in the platform of the Democratic Party.
Once Wilson secured reelection in 1916, however, he changed tack on the question, even as the United States, despite his avowals of neutrality, edged closer to entering the First World War. It was decidedly easier to embrace suffrage in a second term (little serious though was given to serving beyond that until Franklin D. Roosevelt chose to run for a third term in 1940), but Wilson also was pushed.
In January 1917, before his second inauguration (these were held in March for much of the nation’s history), suffragists picketed day and night outside the White House. As America entered the war, the role of women in jobs as men enlisted or were drafted into military service was a major factor in the evolution of Wilson’s position.
Complicating the matter was the question of race. Wilson, raised in the South, held many of the prevailing views of the time concerning blacks and he notoriously lent his public support for D.W. Griffith’s innovative, popular, but racist film, Birth of a Nation. Eventually, as he came to support what became the 19th Amendment, the president chose to remain publicly mute concerning the fact that this constitutional change would not only give white women the vote, but would do so for black women. This was despite the often virulent opposition of many Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Even a renowned 1913 woman suffrage march on Washington was segregated, as black women were forced to remain in the back.
As the state of New York geared up for a 6 November 1917 election that would amend the state constitution to give women voting rights, the New York State Woman Suffrage Party issued a pamphlet, which is in the Homestead’s collection, and titled “What President Wilson Says.” The artifact contains five quotes on the president’s position, including one on the front cover, dated 16 May 1917:
We are fighting for the essential part of it all [democracy], namely . . . to have a right to a voice in the Government under which we live, and when men and woman are equally [bold in original] admitted to those rights, we have the best safeguard of justice and of peace that the world afford. There is no other safeguard.
Of the others, the earliest was from 8 September 1916 as the president was running for reelection and addressed a national suffrage convention. There he noted that “Woman Suffrage is going to prevail” and noted that it was far beyond some accusations of a vague sense of social unrest that animated this inevitability. He added, “it is because the women have seen visions of duty, and that is something which we not only cannot resist, but if we be true Americans, we do not wish to resist.”
On 27 January 1917, in the face of those protests at the White House, Wilson wrote to Carrie Chapman Cott, who was not inclined to make these public efforts and, therefore, found the president more amenable to her subtler methods of influence. Wilson congratulated her on a successful bill for a limited franchise for presidential and municipal elections and added “as you know, I have a very real interest in the extension of the Suffrage to the women.”
On 3 March, he sent a telegram to the president of the Tennessee state senate asking that body to “reconsider the vote by which it rejected the legislation extending the Suffrage to Women?” Again, Southern Democrats maintained a hard line and the president added “our party is so distinctly pledged to its passage that it seems to be the moral obligation is completed.”
Finally, on 3 April, Wilson gave an address to Congress in which he stated that making the world safe for democracy, a key tenet of his foreign policy, meant that the battle for democratic institutions was about “the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own Governments.” He invoked “the principles of right and of fair play” and, while speaking broadly and generally, the obvious insinuation is that this right was for women as well as for men.
On the back panel of the pamphlet is the statement “Stand by Our President,” a slogan for wartime patriotism as well as for the immediate project of passing the suffrage amendment. It quoted again from Wilson’s message to Congress on the broad implications of citizens partaking in the formation of government and added “show that you are a true American” by voting for the amendment at the November election.
Some 1.3 million voters went to the polls on this issue and there was clear majority of just under 54% in favor, totaling over 700,000 votes, while 600,000 men, or 46%, voted against the amendment. By contrast, California’s Proposition 4, an amendment to the state constitution by legislative referral, very narrowly passed, with 125,037 men voting in favor and 121,450 voting against.
Once the 19th Amendment was passed and then enacted, state legislation was invalidated as federal law took precedence. As for Wilson’s role, it is somewhat mixed. He was largely silent until he’d secured a second term. Even then, he was less than thrilled with the protesters marching in front of White House early in 1917.
It does seem, however, that the conditions of the First World War had a significant impact on the change in his views concerning woman suffrage and he became a public advocate. He also lobbied very heavily with intransigent members of Congress, especially the southerners in his party, though he little success with the latter especially.
Moreover, while Wilson elected to not publicly address the question of black women being able to vote under the new federal amendment, he did make the transition to general support for the concept, even as he avoided the specific question of the extension of the franchise to black women.
This pamphlet is an interesting document in support of the Homestead’s commemoration of the centennial of the woman suffrage movement from the mid-19th century until the passage and implementation of the 19th Amendment.