The 19th Amendment

World War I

The United States entered World War I in 1917. The NAWSA decided to suspend Congressional lobbying after the declaration of war, to support the preparations for United States mobilization. It continued to build popular support for the movement, however, and more radical suffragists used tactics like picket lines and hunger strikes to try and put pressure on Congress and the President. 

The most important opportunity that WWI gave to suffragists, however, was the opportunity to enthusiastically support the war effort and contribute to the mobilization. This of course, helped to address the question of the age-old link between voting and military service. By supporting the war effort, women could show their patriotism even if they could not serve on the field of battle itself. 

The NAWSA converted its local chapters into volunteer groups that organized in support of the war—teaching classes, collecting and distributing food, knitting clothes for soldiers, and working closely with the Red Cross. Local women’s suffrage organizations sold war bonds and thrift stamps: in New York, the women’s suffrage party sold over $1 million in war bonds: this demonstration of commitment to the mobilization doubtless contributed to the success of the referendum in that key state. Additionally, the NAWSA was supportive of the Wilson administration, which was especially crucial during wartime. Both Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Howard Shaw served on the Women’s Committee of the Council on National Defense.

Wilson, in turn, lent his support to the women’s suffrage movement. After almost a year of organizing in support of the war effort, their efforts paid off, and Wilson publically called for a constitutional amendment to enfranchise women. In an extraordinary address delivered in January 1918 before a joint session of congress, Wilson said that enfranchising women was necessary “as a war measure.” The next day, the House of Representatives voted in favor of the 19th Amendment, the same bill they had voted against not more than three years earlier. The measure passed by a single vote: supported by most House Republicans and about half of the House Democrats. Quite significantly, most of the Congressmen who changed their votes came from states that had adopted some form of women’s suffrage in the interim. 

Support was not so forthcoming in the Senate, which took an additional year and a half to endorse the amendment. Anti-suffrage Southern Democrats made up a larger portion of the Senate, making the necessary two-thirds majority harder to reach. Wilson kept up the pressure, addressing the Senate again in 1918 and emphasizing the link between women’s suffrage and the war effort, declaring it was “essential to the successful prosecution of the great war of humanity in which we are engaged…we have made partners of the women in this world. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of sacrifice and suffering and toll and not to a partnership of privilege and of right? This war could not have been fought…if it had not been for the services of women.” Wilson was clearly convinced that the support women had lent to the war effort had more than qualified them for the franchise. 

Victory in Congress

Suffragists were vocal in asserting that their wartime role should earn them the right to vote. Women campaigned actively in the 1918 elections, hoping that a Republican majority in congress would be more receptive to their cause. With one house of Congress already on board, suffragists kept the pressure up on holdouts in the Senate, and they finally secured passage of the 19th Amendment in Senate during the summer of 1919. 

Several key factors had combined to result in the ultimate passage of the 19th Amendment. The cause of women’s suffrage had expanded from an agenda of middle class, educated women to a mass movement with support from many segments of the population. The support women had lent to the war mobilization recommended them highly for enfranchisement, and once again, party politics had put some expansive pressure on the franchise. Congressional support for the 19th Amendment, at the end of the day, had come from states where women had become enfranchised as a result of local efforts, and from politicians of both parties who displayed some commitment to issues of social justice and social rights. Those who opposed enfranchising women were almost entirely from the South or old stock, pro-business Republicans.

The Problem of State Ratification

But even with the victory in Congress, the 19th Amendment still had to be ratified. This would depend on winning nearly every state outside of the South, where conservative fears and racial prejudices still overpowered any support for women’s suffrage. Supporters would also have to move quickly. The war was over, and any positive sentiment toward the efforts of women during the conflict might begin to fade. But the local apparatus of the NAWSA was well prepared for the task of navigating the 19th Amendment through state legislatures and securing its ratification. States in much of the Northeast, the Midwest, and the West (where women could already vote) were quick in offering their agreement to the proposed amendment. The major legislative battles occurred in Texas, Oklahoma, and Connecticut, but the movement was strong enough to secure victory in two of the three; Connecticut voted no. 

The South did not support the 19th Amendment. Leaders of the movement attempted to reassure southern legislators that enfranchising women did not pose a threat to white superiority, even arguing that if white women could vote, they would help reinforce the social order. But the South remained opposed, and cries of state’s rights masked deep anxiety about race. In New Orleans, Kate Gordon, who was an activist in favor women’s suffrage, but only by state action, worked to block ratification in New Orleans and the neighboring state of Mississippi. The 19th Amendment was ratified only by the four border states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, and Arkansas. 

On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify, again by a margin of one vote. A week later, ratification had been formally certified, and the 19th Amendment was law.