Library of Congress

How Racism Nearly Derailed Women’s Right to Vote

In The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote, Elaine Weiss chronicles the final moments of the ultimately successful battle to grant women the franchise. Thirty-six states had to ratify the 19th Amendment, and by the summer of 1920, 35 had done so. That left Tennessee, where Weiss’ narrative takes place. She looks at the women who led the struggle, and the myriad forces opposed to them, and examines the political and structural obstacles they faced. In the process, she raises a number of questions relevant to our own day, about how political change is accomplished and just why America seem so uncomfortable granting women power.

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I recently spoke by phone with Weiss, whose previous book was Fruits of Victory: The Woman’s Land Army of America in the Great War. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why racists were so worried about giving women the vote, what drove the suffragettes to a life of activism, and the disturbing similarities between the rhetoric of 1920 and the rhetoric of today.

Isaac Chotiner: There have been a lot of movements for social change in American history. What is it about this fight that stands out or is unique?

Elaine Weiss: What strikes me is that the movement takes so long and takes such persistence. Now that’s true in lots of social and social justice movements, certainly other civil rights movements. But this comes out of the abolitionist movement, which is the first great civil rights campaign in our history. The women who begin the move towards the expansion of women’s rights come out of this movement and this idea that all people are created equal. The idea that black and white were equal led them to think, well, women could be equal too.

Most of the early pioneers that we know of—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony—are actually abolition workers. They’re organizers. They’re part of the underground railroad. And they go out on the stump for abolition and then begin to sneak in these references to women’s rights, which they’ve been awakened to. And their fellow abolitionists are not so sure they like this idea. They’re fine with black men getting their rights, but they’re not so sure they want their mothers and sisters and daughters to have these rights, so this leads to a bit of a friction. And it comes to a head after the Civil War.

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What’s so interesting is that the women that we know as that first wave of suffragists, Stanton and Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony, are working furiously for both the Union and abolition and then emancipation. They’re the ones gathering over a half million signatures to press President Lincoln to bring about the Emancipation Proclamation and then the 13th Amendment. So they are really startled and upset after the Civil War, when they expect that universal suffrage will be the policy and are told, “No, it’s not the time for women to demand to vote.” This is, as it was called then, the Negro’s hour. This is the time when black men need the vote, it’s a matter of life and death for them because they’re being killed. So there’s a huge split between the women abolitionists and most of the male abolitionists and they have to go off on their own. And they form their own organization. And it’s a very bitter split and there’s all kinds of racial animosity that comes out of that.

The other aspect of racial animosity had to do with the vote itself, in 1920. I didn’t realize how much of the fear about giving women the vote was tied to race and black women.

Precisely. It’s 1920 and Congress, after stalling for 40 years, has passed the 19th Amendment. They sat on it for 40 years. It finally comes out, it has to be ratified by three-quarters of the states, and in the Southern states, it’s rejected. The 19th Amendment is rejected by almost all the Southern states, and there are two reasons that are most prominent.

One is states’ rights, which we’ll hear a lot about again later in the 20th century when the same states will press against integration and voting rights. And two is the idea that this would enfranchise black women as well as white women. And at this point in 1920 the Southern states had pretty much figured out how to disenfranchise black men. There are literacy tests and physical intimidation and violence and lynching to make sure black men don’t vote. But they are afraid it will look unseemly if they try to attack black women in the same way and so they are very, very nervous about allowing black women to vote.

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Once the amendment passed, they tried to keep black women from voting too. They really stuck to their principles.

Oh yeah, they were equal opportunity with that. But the racial aspect of the fight is really shocking. The confederate flag is waved in defiance. There are posters and pictures of the anti-suffragists posing with Confederate flags and the battle insignia of the Civil War. There are speeches where they say listen, “We have to maintain our white nation. This is a nation for white people.”

One of the characters in your book is Woodrow Wilson, who, let’s say, did not have the most progressive racial record and also did not initially support giving women the right to vote either. What did you make of him and to what degree do you feel like any change that he underwent was sincere?

Woodrow Wilson is just a fascinating character in many ways and in many aspects of his career, but I found that his evolution, shall we say, was interesting. He certainly has no background that would lead him to be progressive on women’s rights. He comes out of a very conservative, Southern background as a Presbyterian minister’s son. And he says over and over in his career that he really doesn’t think women should vote.

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He relies on women. He’s very close to both of his wives, to his daughters. He very much likes to be coddled by women, but he doesn’t want to see them as equals.

Remind you of anyone?

There are lots of analogies to be made. But when it comes to women’s suffrage, he tries to duck. When he’s governor of New Jersey he says, “No, this is not my fight.” And then when he becomes president, he says he can’t make any decisions because it’s his party who has to make those. And he’s being hounded by the suffragists at this point. They’re picketing in front of the White House. They’re burning him in effigy. It’s very embarrassing, and he slowly, slowly comes around to supporting a federal amendment, which is the only way that all women, in every state will be able to vote.

Of course by this time he’s a lame-duck president. He’s also an invalid, he has been suffering the after effects of a major stroke. He’s not able to really do his job and his wife, Edith, his second wife, is actually really doing a lot of the work in the White House. And she is a rabid anti-suffragist. So it’s a very interesting dynamic going on inside the White House, at this moment.

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And he finally does come around to believe that women should get to vote, but one of the prime reasons he makes this change of heart is that he’s having trouble getting the League of Nations approved by Congress. The Senate has already rejected it and his thought is that women tend to be more attuned to peaceful resolution of conflict and so might actually support his League of Nations idea. If they can vote in the 1920 election, maybe they will save the League of Nations for him. That’s why I believe he really does do his best to try to convince the politicians who are being equivocal in Tennessee in that last fight.

Revolutionary people can be really difficult people, I think it’s fair to say. What did you make of the women in your story?

I think a prime example is Alice Paul, who for many years was forgotten in the history books because she was of a rival faction of the movement. She was almost monklike in her devotion to the cause. She lives in suffrage headquarters in Washington and will continue to do this for the next 50 years. She lives there, she eats, breathes, and sleeps the cause. She is working at it night and day. She has no social life. She never marries. She does not seem to have very close friends, so it’s a very interesting devotion. Complete devotion to a cause, and I don’t see that in some of the other leaders, [such as] Carrie Chapman Catt, who’s married twice and has a domestic partner at this time and always has many, many relationships. But you could say she does not continue with the cause. After 1920, when women get to vote, she goes on to other causes like world peace and disarmament and the League of Women Voters, which she founds.

Alice Paul keeps at the feminist agenda and just two years, three years, after winning the vote, that’s a new law called the Equal Rights Amendment that she has [pushed] into Congress in 1923, so she works on that until her death in the 1970s. And she is pushing the next frontier for women’s rights. But she is a very enigmatic person. There’s very few personal writings of hers; it’s all political. I found that very interesting. I don’t know of very many other women who were dedicated so completely and at the exclusion of almost all other social contact, over such a long time.

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Did you notice any parallels in the language used to argue against giving women the right to vote, and the language used in the 2016 campaign?

It was almost unnerving, all the kinds of parallels that I heard: states’ rights and racial intolerance and the idea that this is a man’s world and women have no place in it. I found that extremely disturbing. There was also a comic aspect to it. The Republican candidate for the presidency in 1920 was Warren G. Harding, and he was sort of my comic relief; he’s quite the bumbler. But one of the things that is fascinating is he’s a notorious womanizer, and at the time of his nomination he’s being blackmailed by one of his several mistresses, and the Republican National Committee is having to pay hush money to one of the mistresses who’s blackmailing him, and even sends her on an around-the-world cruise to be away from the press.

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