by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For six decades, from the mid-1890s through the mid-1950s, the weekly newsmagazine, The Pathfinder, provided what it referred to as “the gist of the world’s news in a nutshell” to readers from its headquarters in Washington, D.C. A more detailed statement of purpose for the publication, denoted as “Our Platform” was that “the aim of this paper to give busy earnest people a digest of all the really important developments in world progress in condensed, clean and orderly, yet sprightly and entertaining form.”
Moreover, the magazine sought to remove private opinions and state facts and any editorializing in it was personal but “with malice toward none and charity for all” without trying to convert a reader but encouraging thoughtfulnes and reasonable dialog “on living topics.” The statement concluded, “we have no axes to grind, no schemes to boost—no interest but yours to safeguard.”
While there are many items, mostly short summaries, of interesting items from the country and the world in the publication, which was something of a precursor to flashier descendants like TIME, the focus of this post is on the cover feature article, “American Women Have Won Long, Hard Fight for the Ballot” and a shorter adjunct of sorts, “Woman Vote May Decide.” There was a national election in two months, it being the first since the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the vote in such campaigns, was ratified by at least three-quarters of the states.
The first piece noted that it was close to 75 years before when a Quaker schoolteacher from Massachusetts, Susan B. Anthony, attended a convention of temperance (anti-alcohol) reformers as a delegate, but, when she attempted to make a point, “she was told by the chairman that women should sit and listen and learn.” She left the meeting, followed by other female delegates, and, thus, “there was then born a rebellion and a spirit of fight not to be put down nor stamped out until every woman in the whole country should take her place as the equal of man at the polls.”
After the formation of a Woman’s Union came, in 1848, the famous woman’s rights conference at Seneca Falls, New York and, almost thirty years later, Anthony’s draft of a suffrage amendment to the Constitution that read: “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” It was reported that she stated that “in 1920 American women will have the vote” and it was exactly a century after her birth that “the last and winnning blow of the long, hard fight was delivered” in Tennessee, the deciding thirty-sixth state to ratify (the first was Wisconsin, followed the same day by Illinois and Michigan, in June 1919, California was 18th with its vote on 1 November 1919, and the last, amazingly, was Mississippi in March 1984.)
When the historic vote on 18 August was cast at the state legislature chamber in Nashville, an observer wrote, “the chamber became a bedlam of cheers and shouts; women screamed at the top of their voices; socred placed their arms around the becks of those nearest them and danced, so far as it was possible for them to do so, in the mass of humanity. Hundreds of suffrage banners were aves wildly and many removed the yellow flowers they had been wearing and threw them upward to meet a similar shower from the galleries.” It bears noting that all of these women were white and it was to be close to a half-century later before Black women and men could begin to more fully assert their right to vote.
Yet, there were other states that were hotly debating the issue at the time Tenneesee’s legislature was deliberating. For example, Delaware rejected the amendment on 2 July and did not ratify for almost three years, while Vermont’s governor rejected calling a special legislative session and the ratification waited until early February 1921 and Louisiana voted down the proposal on 1 July and delayed for a half-century before finally voting in the affirmative in June 1970.
Notably, of the 12 states (there were 48 at the time) that ratified after Tenneesee, the first three to vote for the amendment were in the northeast and all did so within three years. The border states of Maryland and Virginia were next, in 1941 and 1952, respectively, while Deep South states slowly came around, with Alabama in 1953, five others between 1969 and 1971 and that holdout of Mississippi years after that.
The article noted that, in North Carolina, which did not ratify until 1971, “the amendment was promptly rejected by a vote of 71 to 41 in the house of representatives” and the nominees for president from both parties, Democrat James M. Cox (whose running mate was future president Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York), and Republican Warren G. Harding, both from Ohio, sent telegrams urging legislators to vote for passage. Cox, facing a decidedly uphill battle as the political landscape was shifting towards the G.O.P., frequently called the Democratic governor of the state to discuss ratification.
There was also the ugly history of Reconstruction after the Civil War to reckon with over a half-century later, as The Pathfinder observed that “when the legislature was in the hands of negroes [in the late 1860s], the 14th amendment was ratified in short order.” Yet, two years later, “with the whites again on control,” the state constitution was amended so that it was forbidden for representatives to vote on any federal constitutional amendment “unless such convention or general assembly shall have been elected after such amendment is submitted.” A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision involving Ohio led Tennessee’s attorney general to inform the governor that the 1870 amendment was voided by that high court ruling.
Even though there were plenty of legislators who insisted the state constitutional provision was valid, the Tennessee Senate voted to ratify the 19th Amendment by 25-4, but Seth Walker, the House speaker who’d expressed support previously changed his tune, enraging women activists. A majority of the North Carolina house sent word that the amendment would be defeated their (which it was) and urging its colleagues in Tennessee to do the same, with the speaker replying that such an action was easily assured.
Yet, when the matter was readying to come to the floor for a vote, the speaker moved to table the item and the vote for this was 48 even. This led the anti-suffragists to insist on a vote of the original motion, but Republican Harry T. Burn, who “belonged to the camp of the antis,” suddenly flipped the script and voted yes so that “the vote was accordingly 49 to 47 in favor of ratification.” Seeking some way to hold off the inevitable, the speaker changed his vote to yes so that he could issue a motion to reconsider the matter.
The recent action of Texas Democrats to leave the state in protest against the voting “reform” bill instituted by Republicans was hardly novel, as the article noted that “the antis took desperate and drastic steps to prevent” final ratification and “about 30 of their number, enough to break a quorum, vamoosed; they took a midnight train [not to Georgia] for the state of Alabama, where they proposed to stay for the remaining 20 legislative days, if necessary, so that reconsideration might remain ‘alive’ on the journal.”
Amid all of the wrangling about legislative procedure, it was alleged that Representative Burn was given a $10,000 bribe to change his vote, to which he rejoined that his change of heart was due “to the recept of a letter from his mother asking him to vote for the measure.” An added incentive apparently was that his reversal was “to secure for his party the honor of turning the tide of victory.” The article stated that not even the leaders of the anti-ratification forces took the bribery claim seriously.
The article concluded by noting that the closest vote tally beyond that of Tennessee was in West Virginia in March when “the amendment was saved by the vote of a senator who rushed home from California on a special train, making record time.” Jesse Bloch was enjoying a golf vacation, but with the national Republican Party committee coughing up the $5,000, the senator got back to Charleston at 2 a.m. on the morning of the vote and swung the ratification tally into the yes column.
The “Woman Vote May Decide” article noted that “the suffrage amendment will give the potential ballot to 27 million wonen—counting all the women in the country who are voting age, 21 or over.” As it went on to say that there were many “who for one reason or another cannot vote or do not vote,” this included those who weren’t citizens, not registered, not inclined to vote, “or pay poll taxes,” or “who come under the various restrictions laid down for voters by the laws of the different states.” For these latter two, it added, “in the South, where the negroes are largely disfranchized, the actual vote is generally small.”
Comparatively, there were some 29 million eligible male voters “and yet the highest total vote ever cast was considerable below 19 millions” with “several million women voters in states which had equal suffrage.” So, while the total of overall eliglble voters was about 56 million, “the actual vote cast in November will probably not exceed 35 millions.” Compare this to the total tally a century later, as the 2020 election exceeded 158 million votes cast out of over 235 million eligible.
The piece observed that
The woman vote, if it could be corralled by either party, would insure the victory of that party, in every state and in the nation. But the women so far have divided up politically on just about the same lines as the men. The majority of women follow the line of least resistance and vote as their husbands vote; a smaller number are naturally contrary and they show their spite by voting just the other way.
Thus far there is nothing to prove which of the big parties will get the larger share of the woman vote.
It was added that the National Suffrage Association, a major lobbying force in the movement was being replaced by the [National] League of Women Voters, which still exists and is determinedly non-partisan. Moreover, the piece went on, “it is generally agreed that the extension of the ballot to women will clear the political atmosphere and prepare the way for a new era of protests” and it was even added that “just as the slavery issue held the country up for many years, so this suffrage issue has complicated and embarrassed American politics.” Prohibition, too, divided the two parties and shook up their political maneuverings.
The paper averred that “the women will be found in the main supporting the side of genuine reforms; they will hold the whip-hand over the men and if the latter do not do the right thing the women will take their boom and clean things up.” It also claimed that rural women were “to be a powerful reserve force for good” as unlikely to be as quick to act as their urban counterparts and, therefore, “will have a seadying effect on the nation’s course.”
The Southern Democrats “made a rather bad record for that party” by being anti-suffrage, engaging in filibustering and other delaying tactics, and President Woodrow Wilson, a Virginia native, argued that the issue was a state matter until he was forced to adopt a new attitude and support the 19th Amendment. The vote in the House of Representatives was 304-89 in favor, with 200 Republicans and 102 Democrats in favor (along with an independent and a Prohibitionist), while 70 Democrats voted against along with just 19 Republicans. In the Senate the tally 56-25, with 36 from the G.O.P. and 20 Democrats in favor and 17 Democrats and only 8 Republicans against.
The paper had warned Democrats that their opposition could cost them and that hey were “the same class of men [who] had formerly argued that human slavery was a matter for the states to settle and was no concern of the nation as a whole.” If women voted for the G.O.P. in November, “Democrats can lay it to the blind Bourbon [a conservative Democrat of the late 19th century] action of their leaders.” The 1920s was a decade of republican domination politically, though there were, as always, many reasons.
When it came to ratification, there were 26 Republican states who voted to ratify as opposed with just 7 Democratic ones, while there were thrre with closely divided legislatures to get to that three-quarters required. As G.O.P.-led states ratified at a rate three times greater, “it is natural to assume that the women voters, when they get their chance at the polls, will to some extent be governed by this fact.” The paper invoked precedent by reminding readers that “it was the Republicans who enfranchized the negroes and history shows that the negroes, when allowed to vote, showed their gratitude by voting Republican mainly.”
The article continued that smart politicos know where the tide flows and go with it rather than try to build a dike to hold back the inevitable waves of change and progress. Leaders could stand their ground against what was “immoral and destructive, but when it comes to constructive and progressive movement he is foolish to resist it” and should accept the consequences otherwise. It ended with the prediction that:
The Pathfinder makes this explanation here and now for the reason that it believes the woman vote is going to be the deciding influence in American politics for some time to come. Citizens should bear this fact in mind when trying to understand the political development of the years just ahead. Keep your eye on the woman voter and you will learn more about what is likely to happen than you can find out from all the eloquence of the male politicians.
As noted above, there are other interesting items, including a front cover photo of damage from the Inglewood earthquake of 21 June, the subject of a prior post here, but these featured articles are notable for their discussions of one of the core issues of the day. As we continue to grapple with voting rights matters, although of a different complexion (literally), the answers to fundamental questions of the continued viability of American democratic institutions are always functions of historical and contemporary political calculations.