19th Amendment Ratified, Guaranteeing Women’s Suffrage

A great many determined women, in groups and as individuals (along with some enlightened men), worked for over 70 years to gain women the national right to vote in this country. They had to suffer many setbacks and disappointments along the way before seeing their dream become a reality. Finally, on 18 August 1920, Tennessee became the required 36th state to approve the suffrage amendment, and with that action the 19th Amendment to the U.S Constitution was ratified.

The wording of this important amendment is simple and direct, consisting of two sentences:

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.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Some members of Congress and the press referred to the proposed 19th Amendment as the “Susan Anthony Federal Suffrage Amendment.” This was because it was drafted by famed suffragist Susan B. Anthony (assisted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton), then introduced in the U.S. Senate by California Senator Aaron A. Sargent in January 1878.

Photo: Elizabeth Cady Stanton (seated) with Susan B. Anthony (standing)
Photo: Elizabeth Cady Stanton (seated) with Susan B. Anthony (standing). Credit: U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

It took 41 years of hard work before Congress finally passed the amendment and submitted it to the states for ratification on 4 June 1919.

Photo: Speaker of the House of Representatives Gillett signing the suffrage bill after it had been passed by the Senate, 25 June 1919
Photo: Speaker of the House of Representatives Gillett signing the suffrage bill after it had been passed by the Senate, 25 June 1919. Credit: International Film Service; Wikimedia Commons.

Even then the work of the suffragists and their supporters was not done; 36 states had to ratify the amendment before it became law, and the 35th state, Washington, did so on 22 March 1920. Then days… weeks… months crawled by with no other state willing to step forward and provide the requisite 36th approval. The focus became centered on the state legislature of Tennessee, where a drawn-out, nasty fight erupted over passage of the suffrage amendment. This protracted drama kept suffragists on the edge of their seats, with the outcome uncertain every step of the way.

The amendment passed the Tennessee Senate by a comfortable 25-7 vote, but the final vote was less clear in the Tennessee House of Representatives. After much heated debate over ten days the House was set to vote on 17 August 1920, but then anti-suffragists (led by Speaker Walker) succeeded in getting approval of a one-day postponement so that they could hold an overnight strategy session to figure out how to defeat the proposal. The fact that they got the bill tabled overnight boosted their confidence that they would prevail in the final vote.

The next day, the vote ended in a deadlocked 48 to 48 tie in the Tennessee House. A second ballot was voted on, and again a 48 to 48 tie resulted. Then, during the third ballot, something surprising happened. Rep. Boyd, who had earlier made a motion to table the resolution, suddenly changed his mind – and his two previous no votes – and voted in favor of the amendment, passing it by a 49 to 47 margin.

The drama was not over yet, however. The 49 to 47 vote was one less than what the Tennessee State Constitution defined as a majority – and then another surprise happened. Speaker Walker, who had led the fight against the amendment, changed his no vote to a yes, giving it the necessary 50 to 46 margin of victory it needed to pass. But the sly congressman had a trick up his sleeve – he agreed to change his vote only if he could get a reconsideration of the entire vote approved for the next session!

Suffragists everywhere groaned and squirmed. Fortunately, the reconsideration failed to overturn the vote, and the Tennessee approval on Aug. 18 remained effective: the 36th state had ratified the 19th Amendment, and it was now the law of the land.

An article about passage of the 19th Amendment, Belleville News-Democrat newspaper article 18 August 1920
Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Illinois), 18 August 1920, page 1

Here is a transcription of this article:

Tennessee Ratifies Suffrage Amendment 50-46

42,000,000 Women to Get Ballot as Result of Victory

Legislature Makes Tennessee Necessary 36th State to Ratify the 19th Federal Amendment

(By International News Service.)

Nashville, Tenn., Aug. 18. – Tennessee passed the women’s suffrage amendment ratification resolution by a vote of 50 to 46 today after three ballots had been taken, the first two resulting in a tie vote of 48 to 48. The original vote on the third ballot was 49 to 47, but Speaker Walker changed his vote from no to aye thus making it possible for him to move a reconsideration. With the motion for a reconsideration made, the House adjourned until Friday when the motion will be voted upon.

Although the action of the House, which followed a favorable vote in the Senate last Friday, is regarded as tantamount to ratification, technically the amendment has not yet been ratified. The motion to reconsider must be disposed of before formal ratification can be certified by the Secretary of State of Tennessee.

The vote of 49 to 47 on the third ballot was one less than the constitutional majority, and Speaker Walker’s action made possible constitutional ratification of the amendment.

Suffrage leaders are confident that the reconsideration motion will be defeated.

Ratification was accomplished when Rep. Boyd, who had made a motion to table the resolution, changed his vote on the third ballot from no to aye.

This broke the 48 to 48 deadlock which the first two ballots had produced, and with Speaker Walker’s change of vote made the suffrage victory possible.

The last ballot, which came at the end of ten days of bitter conflict during which charges and counter-charges flew thick and fast, was received by a burst of applause.

Cox Is Elated over Victory for Suffrage

Columbus, O., Aug. 18. – Gov. James M. Cox, Democratic presidential nominee, when told of the ratification of the suffrage amendment by the Tennessee Legislature, made the following statement:

“The civilization of the world is saved. The mothers of America will stay the hand of war and repudiate those who trifle with a great principle. The action of the Tennessee Legislature has another significance. It is the earnest desire of the Democratic Party to pay its platform obligations.”

Ask Early Proclamation

Washington, D.C., Aug. 18. – An appeal to Secretary of State Colby to issue the proclamation declaring the suffrage amendment ratified was made this afternoon by Miss Alice Paul, chairman of the National Woman’s Party. She asked the proclamation be issued as soon as official notification of ratification is received in order that women may participate in the August primaries now being held in many states.

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Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Were any of your ancestors involved in the women’s suffrage movement? Please share your stories with us in the comments section.

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