So...what now? (Prologued, Season 1, Episode 4)

About this Episode

With the August 18, 1920 ratification, women's suffrage was now the law of the land. Theoretically all women should have been able to vote and that massive organizing power that brought the 19th Amendment to fruition to further "women's issues." Today, we talk about the post 19th Amendment reality that many women in the US were still barred from voting and that what is, and is not, a "women's issue" varied radically, dooming the mythic women's voting bloc from the start. 

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Sarah Paxton , "So...what now? (Prologued, Season 1, Episode 4)" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective


Episode 4: So...What Now? Citations:

Theme Music: Hot Shot by Scott Holmes

"Anderson, Mary," Social Welfare History Project. VirginiaCommonwealth University.

Nancy F. Cott, "Historical Perspectics: The Equal Rights Amendment Conflict in the 1920s" in Conflicts in Feminism, edited byMarianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller (New York and London: Routledge, 1990),

Liette Gidlow, "Delegitimizing Democracy: "Civic Slackers," the Cultural Turn, and the Possibilities of Politics" The Journal of American History 89, no. 3 (Dec., 2002)

Paul Kleppner, "Were Women to Blame? Female Suffrage and Voter Turnout," The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 12, no. 4 (Spring, 1982)

"Mabel Ping-Hua Lee," Shall Not Be Denied: More to the Movement. The Library of Congress.

Ann  Firor Scott, "After Suffrage: Southern Women in the Twenties," The Journal of Southern History 30, no.  3 (Aug., 1964)

"Triangle Factory Fire," The History Engine. The University of Richmond.


Episode 4: So...What Now?:

Sarah Paxton

At the turn of the 20th century, women's politics was largely defined by suffrage. It was a fight to gain the right to vote. In an era when even if there were disagreements as to specifics and strategy. The goal is clear, and the only options were victory or failure.

In August of 1920, the 19th Amendment marked victory from the National American Woman's Suffrage Association and the National Women’s Party. Women were legally allowed to vote in the 1920 presidential election. The battle was over, They had won. So…what now?

Now that women were a part of the electorate, they had the opportunity to take advantage of that new right to vote. They could harness the organizing power they demonstrated during the suffrage movement to form the much anticipated women's voting bloc that would exercise the political influence suffragists had argued was their right as both Americans and as society's caretakers.

But that bloc never emerged.

Today we turn to the aftermath of the 19th Amendment, and women's rocky transition from suffrage-focus activists to American voters with disparate political beliefs and deeply entrenched racial and economic divides.

For Origins: Current Events in Historic al Perspective, I'm Sarah Paxton, and this is Prologued.


Susan Hartmann

Well, in some ways, it didn't represent an abrupt change.

Sarah Paxton

That is Dr. Susan Hartmann, an expert on 20th century women's history and a professor emeritus of American history at The Ohio State University. For this episode, Dr. Hartmann and I sat down to discuss post 19th Amendment America, including how electoral politics changed for the first elections after the amendment passed.

Susan Hartmann

A lot of the polls were set up in barber shops and even bars before women could vote and, after women join the electorate everywhere, the polls were moved to schools and churches and community centers. There was some change in how candidates appealed to voters. They did, at least for a while after suffrage, feel the need to talk directly to women, Warren Harding, who was running for president in 1920, he had a special reception for women at his home and gathered 5000 women to his home so that he could give an election speech. And the Republicans also took out an ad in one magazine, a sewing magazine for women, and it told women why they should vote for Harding. And that ad emphasized peace, that Harding and the Republicans were going to be the party of peace and it addressed them as mothers. So it was very gender specific.

Sarah Paxton

These changes may seem subtle, but they demonstrate a critical evolution in the electoral process in the United States. When electoral politics was an essential facet of white American masculinity, it was expressed in areas strictly inhabited by men. This quickly changed upon the 19th Amendment’s ratification—the electoral process was now in areas associated with women and the home. Churches, schools, community centers, and this continues through to this day. Think about it. Where do you vote?

The power that came with this new access to American elections was not lost on the activists of NAWSA and the National Women’s Party, but their role in post 19th Amendment American politics was unclear. Establishing a coalition of women focused on a single issue during the interwar period was difficult. Following World War One, American politics shifted as the Progressive Era support for expansive measures like suffrage fell out of favor, instead seeing the rise of anti-labor backlash, an increase in racial violence, and, finally, the stock market crash of 1929 that ushered in the Great Depression during the 1930s. This social volatility made coalescing around any particular issue difficult as women's interests and opinions were diverse. The suffrage movement split into multiple, issue-based organizations and each group did not necessarily enjoy alliances with other women run organizations. Perhaps most daunting, despite being of roughly equal number to their brothers. American society expected higher rates of women's participation in elections than they expected of male voters.

Despite these difficulties, both NAWSA and the National Women’s Party moved to transition from a women's suffrage movement to a women's rights movement. In 1919, NAWSA merged with the National Council of Women Voters in an organization founded by Emma Smith DeVoe in 1911 that intended to educate women who had already gained the right to vote through state action. This merger created a new organization dedicated to the education of American voters and lobbying for legislation that promoted women's issues. They named this organization the League of Women Voters.

Susan Hartmann

The League of Women Voters did two things primarily. They tried to get women to the polls, and they tried to educate voters of both sexes, not just women, but they put out educational materials and held meetings and events for both men and women voters. And they continue to do that today. I mean, anybody who's kind of looked around every time there's an election, there'll be the League of Women Voters guide to candidates. They also, after suffrage, worked for jury service for women, because that didn't come automatically with suffrage. And that was one of their key objectives to get women equal rights with men to serve on juries that wasn't finally settled until Supreme Court decision in the 1970s. So that took a long time. And the League is really very active today, not just with the voting guides, but they have been one of the key players in the push to defend voting rights for everybody, not just women.

Sarah Paxton

Many of the NAWSA women recognize that these early years after the 19th Amendment would serve as a referendum on the 19th Amendment and the rhetoric the suffragists had espoused during the suffrage movement, it was time to prove themselves. And the only way to do that was to make sure women voted—regardless of the candidate’s political party.

Susan Hartmann

The League was absolutely and strictly nonpartisan. It never endorsed a candidate. And if you are an officer in the League, and you ran before an elected office, you had to resign from your League position. So it was strictly nonpartisan, but it did give women a lot of training and experience in politics.

Sarah Paxton

The League worked hard to encourage women to vote in the years after the 19th Amendment was ratified. And in doing so, the 1920s League of Women Voters had a large impact on the electoral process and served as a predicate for our modern campaigning. In 1923, they organized an iteration of the modern get out the vote campaign, which they call the “Victory Vote Drive.”

Yet despite their effort, the 1920s marked an era of decline in overall voter turnout.

It is easy to argue a causal link between the 19th Amendment and low voter turnout. The size of the electorate doubled for the 1920 election and yet the turnout percentages were at an all time low, suggesting that the new voters weren't turning out to the polls.

But that is not necessarily a fair analysis.

For one, Dr. Hartmann tells me, we just don't have good numbers on gender breakdowns of voter turnout until the 1960s or 70s. Statisticians can render some estimation, but the information is nowhere near as strong as the data we collect today and the findings not as robust. But what we do know is that women were voting.

Susan Hartmann

Women already had the vote in 15 states before the 19th Amendment was ratified. And these women of course, were all voting So it wasn't that abrupt change. Even in Ohio, women had been voting for school board candidates for years, and they even had won the presidential vote right before the national amendment. But the amendment did bring millions more women into the polls, about 19 million women overall, voted in 1920. It was a little over a third of all women who were eligible to vote and only half the number of men who voted. So women started out slowly. But that often happens with new groups of voters. It takes a while for them to kind of match up with people who have been voting for a long time.

Sarah Paxton

And let's not forget that discussion of voter turnout numbers in the 1920s are not representative of everyone living in the United States. Thousands of people men and women are still barredd from voting, even after the Civil Rights Amendment and the 19th Amendment. While women of color were a critical part of the suffrage movement, fighting for women of color’s right to vote was not a chief concern for NAWSA or the National Women’s Party leaders. That meant that a unified women's voting bloc not only didn't form but couldn't form because the 19th Amendment still did not guarantee universal suffrage.

Susan Hartmann

And, of course, as you know, it was white women who won the vote in 1920. That was not written down anywhere. But the vast, vast, vast majority of women of color did not get to vote until decades after the 19th Amendment was ratified. Most American blacks lived in the south, and their voting was inhibited by all kinds of devices by literacy tests, payroll taxes, and even by violence and intimidation. As late as two decades after white women could vote, only 5% of all blacks in the south were able to cast a vote.

Sarah Paxton

Citizenship and voting rights hold a great deal of power and have been and continue to be a weapon of both race and class supremacy. White supremacy was reinforced in many communities by controlling who was, and who was not, an American citizen. Asian American women were barred from American citizenship due to a variety of race-based laws. Chinese women, for instance, were ineligible for American citizenship under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which meant that women like Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, who marched in suffrage parades and fought for women's voting rights was not enfranchised herself under the 19th Amendment. Further, even women of color who were legally American citizens, such as Black women in the south, were barred from voting due to legislation like Jim Crow laws that established poll taxes and grandfather clauses.

Additionally, according to Dr. Lilia Fernandez, Latina and Chicano women faced obstacles to obtaining citizenship and voting as well, so the 19th Amendment had little impact on their ability to participate in electoral politics.

Lilia Fernandez

It would have again, for those elite women for middle upper class women who had been previously engaged politically before the passage of the 19th Amendment, you know, of course, it would have given them the franchise and so they would have felt empowered or emboldened in their work to advocate on behalf of vulnerable or marginal members of their community, to advocate on behalf of women, children and other populations. Now, one of the things that I think we need to remember when we talk about the 19th Amendment and the extension of suffrage to Latina or Chicana women, was that in many places, in the southwest, for example, Mexican Americans were barred from the electoral process more generally. So men would not have been allowed to vote because of things like poll taxes or white only primaries, or, you know, other kinds of discriminatory mechanisms. So even after the passage of the 19th Amendment and women's suffrage, some of them may have been up against those restrictions as well. And again, it would have been primarily middle, upper-class women or women who were in positions of power, who would have benefited the most from the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Sarah Paxton

Barring access to citizenship and voting rights is a powerful act of white supremacy; however, it is not the only way citizenship can be used to reinforce white domination. Not all women wanted to be citizens and refused American citizenship in order to protect their own community sovereignty. Dr. Daniel Rivers, who you may remember from previous episodes, will tell you that for Native American, being made into an American citizen without their consent was actually a legal reinforcement of white domination against tribal culture and sovereignty.

Daniel Rivers

When thinking about the impact of the 19th Amendment itself on Native American women, we have to remember that citizenship for Native Americans in general is a really fraught and complicated issue. My tribe, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, is granted citizenship as part of the taking of our land under the Dawes Act. The Dawes Act, of course is passed in 1887 and pushes for the allotment of Native American lands and the forced assimilation of native tribes into the United States of America. The five tribes, as they're known colloquially, of Oklahoma, however, the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Cherokee, and the Creek tribes, were exempted from the 1887 Dawes Act. However, in 1898, the Curtis Act is passed and that allots the five tribes, so the five tribes are only given a brief period of grace before they are forced into allotment. And the Curtis Act not only allots the five tribes, but it also forces citizenship on them.

And this is important because the logic of this was that if the citizens of the five tribes of Oklahoma were made citizens than citizens of the United States, it could possibly be argued, could not be under treaties with the United States. And so this would be added insurance that the members of the five tribes wouldn't be able to contest the theft of their land in any way. This is interesting because it shows us that citizenship, while we tend to think of it as a benefit and a right, actually in many ways can operate as a weapon of colonial control and oppression. In this context, citizenship as it was granted to Native Americans in general by the 1924 Indian citizenship act was seen by many Native Americans as a deep betrayal of agreements that they had had with the US government.

Foremost among them, it must be said to honor them, was the Onondaga. The Onondaga, of course, are one of the six tribes of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy that influenced those early suffragists. The Onondaga in 1924, told the US Congress that not only did they not want citizenship, but that the US Congress had no right to confer it on them. So within this context, we have to think about citizenship and the suffrage for native men and Native women, as of questionable benefit in that moment, and certainly as a possible tool of colonial domination.

And this gets us into a conversation about sovereignty, really what we're looking at, I'm a bi national citizen, as are all enrolled members of US tribes. And for us, I think the question of citizenship is always a question that gets us into questions of sovereignty and tribal autonomy.

Sarah Paxton

While the female electorate was slow to emerge after the 19th Amendment, many suffragists turned away from voting rights activism and embraced a far more expansive form of women's rights activism, and this included Alice Paul and her National Women’s Party.

In February 1921, six months after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the National woman's party held a convention to determine the future of their organization. During this conference, Alice Paul endorsed turning the National Women’s Party's attention to eradicating all forms of sex discrimination. The National Women’s Party adopted this plan drafting and advocating for a constitutional amendment that would ensure the equal rights of all Americans, regardless of their gender. This Equal Rights Amendment stated that “men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and at every place, subject to its jurisdiction.” This sweeping amendment would touch on every part of American law and was introduced in Congress in 1923.

However, unlike equal suffrage, equal rights was not universally accepted by women's rights activists and created substantial divides within the movement.

By endorsing universal equal rights. The National Women’s Party alienated important allies from the suffrage movement. Like we talked about in Episode Two, working class women played important roles in the labor movement and the labor movement was a crucial ally of the suffragists. However, labor activists who had previously supported the National Women’s Party balked at the National Women’s Party's view that labor laws should also be gender equal, creating class divisions in the women's rights movement.

Working class women of the labor movement had fought hard for many of the labor protections afforded to women, such as limiting the number of hours they could be made to work. They rejected the National Women’s Party's assertion that sex-based labor laws narrowed the opportunities for economic advancement available to women, and instead viewed them as necessary to defend their role within the industrial world. Further, they argued that the National Women’s Party's stance was based on the views of rich women who had not lived, nor understood, the experiences of working-class women. Many of these women actively organized against the ERA. Mary Anderson was a Swedish immigrant who entered the Chicago workforce at 16 years old, first as a domestic worker, and then a factory worker, and finally a trade union leader before being appointed as the first director of the US Department of Labor's Women's Bureau in 1920. During her 25 years in office, Anderson strove for better working conditions for women, including better hours and wages, and ardently opposed the ERA as failing to protect the already overburdened and vulnerable working women and mothers of America.

Alice Paul's ERA similarly drew the ire of the leaders of other women's organizations, including the League of Women Voters. As Dr. Hartmann said earlier, the League of Women Voters fought for many of the same things as the National Women’s Party, including eliminating sex discrimination. However, like many of the women's labor unions, they were immediately concerned with preserving protective labor legislation.

Further, the League of Women Voters was just as frustrated with the tactics of Alice Paul's National Women’s Party as NAWSA had been during the suffrage movement, seeing them as employing a form of “hysterical feminism” and political trickery that was designed to make all ERA opponents appear to be against women's rights. This personal tension only added to the political divisions. Shortly before the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced to Congress, the League of Women Voters publicly announced their opposition to any universal equal rights legislation.

The ERA would go on to be introduced every year after its 1923 introduction, but its failure to gain traction following the 19th Amendment is often regarded as a failure of the early women's rights movement. It also demonstrates how fractured American women were, and the fallacy of men's fear of the women's bloc. Significant numbers of American women were still barred from voting and those that could vote didn't agree on how to vote, often choosing to vote as their husbands did. Unlike the Civil War Amendments, after the 19th Amendment was passed, it became a relatively uncontroversial part of American law as women's rights activists faded into the background of inter-war politics.

It wouldn't be for several decades, when women of color had substantially more access to electoral politics and protective labor laws were made gender neutral that the ERA would again dominate policy platforms, and women voters would establish themselves as a permanent fixture of American electoral politics.

Next time, on Prologued.

Sarah Paxton

This season of Prologued was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication of the Public History Initiative, the Goldberg Center, and the history departments at The Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, with support from the Stanton foundation. Our editors are David Steigerwald, Steven Conn, and Nicholas Breyfogle. It was written and hosted by Sarah Paxton with research support from Min A Park. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer and our production specialist is Brandon MacLean and Oranjudio. Song and band information can be found on our website, and we encourage our listeners to visit episode descriptions for citations to background reading and sources that made this podcast possible. You can find our podcast and more on our website, on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify and SoundCloud, as well as wherever else you get your podcasts. As always, you can find us on Twitter @ProloguedPod and @originsOSU. Thanks for listening.