Equal Suffrage Awaits Trial (Prologued, Season 1, Episode 3)

About this Episode

As the suffrage movement entered he 20th century, it gained momentum as a flood of states passed their own suffrage amendments and World War I loomed. However, not all women were supportive of the pending 19th Amendment. Today, we discuss the heyday of the suffrage movement and the women who opposed their own enfranchisement. 

Cite this Site

Sarah Paxton , "Equal Suffrage Awaits Trial (Prologued, Season 1, Episode 3)" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective


Episode 3: Equal Suffrage Awaits Trial Citations:

B. H. Gilley "Kate Gordon and Louisiana Woman Suffrage." Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 24, no. 3 (1983): 289-306. 

Susan Goodier, No Votes for Women: The New York State Anti-Suffrage Movement. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, April 2013.

Elna C. Green. "The Rest of the Story: Kate Gordon and the Opposition to the Nineteenth Amendment in the South." Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 33, no. 2 (1992): 171-89. 

Annelise Orleck, "Rose Schneiderman." Jewish Women's Archive. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/schneiderman-rose.

Annelise Orleck, "Pauline Newman." Jewish Women's Archive. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/newman-pauline.

Armantine M. Smith, The History of the Woman's Suffrage Movement in Louisiana, 62 La. L. Rev. (2002)

"Triangle Factory Fire," The History Engine. The University of Richmond. https://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/4473.


Episode 3: Equal Suffrage Awaits Trial:

Sarah Paxton

Last time, we discussed women like Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, and Nellie Griswold Francis, all of whom began organizing and agitating for the vote toward the end of the 19th century.

From the beginning, these activists were willing to thwart the restrictions placed on their sex. They encouraged women to vote illegally collaborated with local women's clubs and launched multiyear protests. While sharing a common goal, these efforts were not without internal conflict of our organizing strategy, and the role of women of color in both the suffrage movement and the American electorate itself.

But internal conflict was not the only obstacle suffragists faced. By the 20th century female, anti-suffrage activists became more vocal as efforts to bring about a federal amendment came to the forefront of the women's suffrage campaign. And, as states began granting suffrage themselves, the issue finally has legs.

Today, we'll discuss the crucial 1910 turning point in the suffrage movement, the anti-suffrage women who valued purity over electoral power, and those women who insisted that only white women be granted the right to vote, all of which foreshadow the limitations of debates regarding women's role in American politics for the next century.

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


Sarah Paxton

Everything changed in 1910.

Since the close of the Civil War, multiple suffrage amendments on both the state and federal level were proposed and introduced only to languish in committee often without a vote.

Then, in 1910, Washington State became the first state to grant women's suffrage since 1896. Other states quickly followed in the coming years: California in 1911 and then Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon in 1912. The state level amendments encouraged hope in the suffragists. The National American Woman Suffrage Association, or NAWSA, had been struggling to bring about state level amendments, rendering a federal amendment unnecessary. While this rush of states to pass their own suffrage amendments did not necessarily mean that they would successfully convince all 48 states to ratify amendments, it did indicate that public opinion was shifting in their favor, suggesting that a federal amendment was possible. After having suffered for over a decade with no progress, this domino effect revitalized the floundering suffrage movement.

By 1912, Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Party had adopted women's suffrage as a party platform plank, and the long dormant Senate Committee on Women's Suffrage returned a favorable report on the federal Anthony Amendment, which, as you may remember from last time, was named for the suffrage movement leader, Susan B. Anthony. Suffragists ramped up their own activism as well. Alice Paul took over the Congressional Union Committee of NAWSA and staged the 1913 March on Washington. And, as Dr. Kimberly Hamlin explains, NAWSA increased its efforts to achieve a federal amendment.

Kimberly Hamlin

President Woodrow Wilson had initially supported women voting but only on a state by state basis. He came out and said that—in 1915, I believe—when New Jersey had a referendum on women voting and President Wilson voted yes that women should vote in New Jersey. And he came to the NAWSA 1916 convention in Atlantic City and addressed the group and he said, basically, he favored women voting but he wouldn't take a stand on state by state or a federal amendment.

So, kind of patiently over months and years, Helen Hamilton Gardner and NAWSA prevailed upon him that the federal amendment was the way to go, that the state by state method was inordinately taxing, would basically never work because in many states there was like a twofold process whereby, even if you could get the referendum passed, that had to pass a second time in many states that had passed it was then later rescinded.

Sarah Paxton

The watershed moment in the state of Washington granting women's suffrage was compounded by an escalation in labor reform movements advocating for women's suffrage, highlighting the critical role of class loyalty and women's political decisions.

Class has always influenced women's politics, but it became increasingly divisive during the 19th century, when, as Dr. Joan Flores-Villalobos explains, women began entering the workforce in greater numbers.

Joan Flores-Villalobos

And this was really as early as the 1830s in the mills, like the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, where women organized strikes and petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for better working conditions. As the 19th century goes on and the early 20th century, these labor reform movements come to be dominated by particularly immigrant Jewish women such as Pauline Newman, Rose Schneiderman, and these women come together and found the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and they organize strikes and marches and again for better working conditions, particularly in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911.

Sarah Paxton

While women's labor outside the home had slowly evolved so that some jobs were deemed “respectable,” working class women still did not enjoy the same assumption of true womanhood in American society as elite women; and, as historian Annelise Orleck has so aptly put it, “respectability didn't pay the rent.” Labor reforms that would protect workers’ wages and safety, including women's, relied on political influence, leading many working women, including Pauline Newman and Rose Schneiderman to view the vote as their best form of protection. In the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in which 123 women and girls in 23 men died in a fire due to a lack of effective safety precautions, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union advocated for women's suffrage, arguing that the 123 women who perished in the fire did so because they did not have any political power to implement safety measures.

However, suffragists weren't the only ones encouraged to act after 1910. Women opposed to suffrage also grew louder, and they too cited concern for working class women in their criticism.

Anti-suffragist Josephine Jewell Dodge became the president of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage shortly after the watershed of 1910.

The daughter of the United States minister to Russia, Jewell Dodge came from both a wealthy and well-connected family like most leaders of both the suffrage and anti-suffrage movements. Dodge attended Vassar College for three years and then married a similarly well-off New York businessmen in 1875, after which she dedicated herself to raising her six children and pursuing her many charitable ventures. This included the Jewell Day Nursery, which aimed to protect the health of New York immigrant and working-class children, while also instilling them with middle class “American values.”

During her 1911 to 1917 tenure as an anti-suffrage leader, she argued that she represented the majority of women and that she and her sisters had “more power in uplifting civilization through the home that man has through his vote.” And that power, she argued, would be lost if women were corrupted by electoral politics.

Dodge’s argument hinged on the Cult of True Womanhood’s presumptive moral superiority of women. Think back for a moment to episode one.

Remember that despite women being politically active in the revolutionary effort, they were not provided equal political and electoral power in the new nation. Rather, their exclusion was justified through the cultural values of what is now called republican motherhood. And later in the 19th century, true womanhood.

Both ideologies were rooted in the idea that women were the privileged gender, that their moral superiority and inherent virtue set them above men, and the dirty world of politics. This provided them with both the aptitude and responsibility to serve as society's caretakers to raise and teach children guide and reform the lower class and, above all, serve as an example to all others.

Over a century later, many upper-class women still clung to these understandings of womanhood and femininity. The ability to prioritize moral superiority and structured life around serving a society's caretakers was a luxury and a distinctly elite prerogative. suffrage leaders use the moral response ability of women to advocate for the vote. Meanwhile, many anti-suffragists argued that women's moral superiority provided them protective privileges, and a persuasive social power through which they would influence men in politics is anti-suffragists were concerned that both the privileges of true womanhood and the persuasive power would be ruined if women became involved in the morally bankrupt work of electoral politics. Josephine Jewell Dodge herself expressed concern that protections not afforded to men like limited work hours and protection from wage garnishment would be forfeited upon the inevitable corruption incurred from political participation.

While these anti-suffragists were concerned that they would lose moral superiority, many white women, particularly in the south, were worried that providing all women the right to vote, especially Black women, would undermine their racial superiority.

The Senate Committee on women's suffrage’s favorable report on the Anthony Amendment should have led to the passing of the amendment by the Senate; but, the legislation was blocked by Democratic legislators from the south who dominated the politics of the region since the end of reconstruction.

These so-called Redeemer Democrats developed in direct opposition to the post-Civil War federal occupation of the former Confederacy and the influx of Radical Republicans, who included Lincoln loyalists and freedman, who took control of southern state legislatures. When former Confederates were barred from office, Redeemers sought to regain their prewar political power and reassert their white racial dominance in the south.

They steadily regained control of the southern states until 1877, when Rutherford B Hayes’s corrupt bargain removed the last of the federal forces from the south in exchange for Southern support of his presidential bid and completed the Redeemer takeover. Reconstruction was officially over.

Redeemers maintained control of Southern politics until the early 20th century and, while their control was slipping, they still had enough influence to block the Amendments quick passage for several years after 1910.

Kimberly Hamlin

In the Senate, men say that—and this is not just Southern senators but also for example, William Borah, the Lion of Idaho—say that they cannot support the 19th Amendment because they don't want to enfranchise Black women in the south and because they feel that the 19th amendment is a rearticulation or reaffirmation of the 15th amendment. And they fear that the 19th amendment will somehow force Congress to uphold the 15th amendment and the southern states, which they have not done since the compromise of 1877. So it's not just about Black women voting, southern states also fear federal enforcement of voting rights across the board, and that they think that that will result from the 19th amendment because now, they would be two amendments that contain a federal enforcement clause of voting.

Sarah Paxton

Federal intervention in the systemic and intentional disenfranchisement of Black voters through Jim Crow regulations that barred voting based on illiteracy, lack of funds, or former familial disenfranchisement was not something that many white southerners—including white southern women—were willing to risk.

Kate Gordon was a native of Louisiana and a strong supporter of suffrage if it came about the right way, and that meant state-by-state and only applying to white women.

Kimberly Hamlin

So in the fall of 1913, NAWSA sends Gardner on this clandestine mission to New Orleans. So NAWSA knows that the southern suffrage leaders lead by Kate Gordon are increasingly upset about NAWSA’s support of the federal amendment strategy over the state by state strategy. And they know that Kate Gordon is thinking of starting her own Southern group focused state by state and for explicitly white women voting. So NAWSA sends Gardener to New Orleans for the meeting that is what starts the southern states women's suffrage group. But Gardner is kind of sent as an emissary, neither NAWSA nor Gardener support Kate Gordon's mission and, in fact, they pretty stridently part ways after Kate Gordon begins making explicitly racist comments about whites only voting, but that's kind of where the rift becomes final is in late 1913. Before that, they had tried to seek ways to work together. But when NAWSA fully endorses the federal strategy, Kate Gordon goes her own way. And then NAWSA does not want to associate or work with her as she becomes increasingly outspoken in her beliefs about whites only voting.

Sarah Paxton

In 1913, Kate Gordon formed the Southern States Woman's Suffrage Conference, which would ultimately turn on NAWSA. While Gordon firmly believed that she and her Southern sisters should be permitted to vote, she was staunchly opposed to any federal action that would inhibit states abilities to affect their own laws and policies.

For those that advocated for states rights, like Gordon, exclusion of Black voters was essential, leading them to completely oppose any measure that would allow for Black suffrage—even if it meant denying themselves the right to vote.

Other Southern activists agreed with Gordon in spirit but largely saw enfranchising Black women as a non-issue. Rather, they argued white supremacy, could be easily protected by disenfranchising Black women in the same manner Black men had been in the aftermath of the Civil War amendments through literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses. Rather than hurting white supremacy, these “moderate” suffrage activists saw this as a way to increase white electoral control by increasing the size of the white electorate by half.

By 1915, NAWSA had diverged from the Southern Conference as they turned their full support to the federal Anthony amendment, effectively ending any role the state legislation focused Southern Conference could play in the organization, forcing the moderate suffragists to split their support between NAWSA and the Southern Conference.

However, it was becoming increasingly clear to Southern suffragists that Gordon was going to fail to enact state level change in the south. Gordon have been advocating for the National Democratic Party to adopt a party platform that encouraged state constitutional amendments that granted women's suffrage, a policy Gordon hoped would urge state legislatures to pass their own suffrage laws and circumvent the necessity for a federal amendment. In 1916, Gordon succeeded, and the Democratic Party officially supported state level suffrage amendments.

However, despite Gordon's certainty that the state party leaders would follow the National Democratic Party's lead, the southern democratic state legislatures were slow to act and the prospect of circumventing the NAWSA supported federal amendment grew bleak.

With the continuing failure of the Southern conference to convince the southern states to pass suffrage amendments, Southern suffragist support for the Southern Conference waned and turned toward NAWSA, which have been making significant inroads into not only the southern states, but also on the federal level.

Kimberly Hamlin

So the 19th Amendments trajectory through Congress actually starts in 1917 when Helen Hamilton Gardener works behind the scenes to get the House woman's suffrage committee organized, that's like the procedural mechanism, you needed to get the woman's suffrage amendment to the House floor for a vote. So she gets Woodrow Wilson to signal his support for this committee, which he then does, the committee gets created in the fall of 1917. This gives the software just great hope that 1918 will be the year that their amendment passes. So in January of 1918, the house Woman Suffrage committee does report favorably on the amendment which then brings it to the House floor for a vote. This is when Woodrow Wilson first signals his support for the federal amendment and the first time the House passes the federal by a very slim two thirds majority.

Sarah Paxton

Seeing the writing on the wall, many of Gordon's colleagues urged her to cooperate with NAWSA, who have been moving their club-based strategies deeper into the southern states.

Gordon ardently refused—despite being an outspoken supporter of women's suffrage, she actively protested the National Association and the Anthony amendment. As a result, the Southern Conference began a rapid decline as Southern suffragists abandoned the southern conference for NAWSA, their finances were depleted, and they continued to fail to persuade state legislators to pass suffrage amendments.

Even in Kate Gordon's home state of Louisiana.

In 1918, Louisiana finally introduced a suffrage amendment. Gordon was elated and traveled the state, loudly supporting and campaigning for the amendment. Gordon was certain of the amendments victory, declaring that “for Louisianans, a democratic stronghold, to knife the national policy by turning down women's suffrage declared by the President as an essential, will be party treachery that is incomprehensible.” Further, she declared her confidence in Louisiana's “men with political vision sufficient to recognize the significance of carrying the state of Louisiana for women's suffrage, and thereby putting our seal of disapproval upon a federal suffrage amendment.”

Kate Gordon was wrong. The Louisiana amendment failed by 2000 votes. And while Gordon’s state amendment was failing, NAWSAs efforts to achieve a federal amendment were moving.

Kimberly Hamlin

Throughout the rest of 1918, the 19th Amendment languished in the Senate. The suffragists know they're just a couple votes shy and they can't seem to get them. So that's when Woodrow Wilson goes to address the Senate in October and that is not enough. So then Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of NAWSA, famously said something to the effect that, “well, when the men of the Senate can't change their mind, the men in the Senate have to be changed.” So NAWSA targets two Antis in the 1918 elections, one Democrat and one Republican, and successfully ousts both of them. So they are pretty sure that they're going to have the votes to pass the 19th Amendment in the 66th Congress, not because anyone changed their minds, but because the personnel of the Senate has shifted.

Sarah Paxton

On June 4, 1919, the 66th Congress approved the Anthony amendment, sending it on to be ratified by the states. While Gordon would continue to campaign loudly against the Anthony amendment and ultimately succeed in preventing its ratification in Louisiana, in August 1920, the Anthony amendment was ratified, formalizing it as the 19th Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Despite the efforts of anti-suffragists and states rights activists like Dodge and Gordon, women were constitutionally provided the right to vote in 1920. Their century long effort had come to fruition. And the natural assumption is then was that women would begin to vote en masse, exercising this hard won right.

But they didn't.

Whether by choice or by design, the women's rights movement that had championed suffrage for over a century all but disappeared during the 1920s.

We’ll turn to this fading of women's rights activists, and who they abandoned, 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 origins.osu.edu, 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.