Special Edition: Women’s Suffrage – 100 Years
Male Allies, Detractors and Converts: The Drama of Women Getting the Vote in the U.S.
The suffrage chronicles in the U.S. unfold like an award-winning drama, complete with intrigue and changing loyalties, and fueled by a cast of male allies, detractors, and converts.
Wyoming in the Vanguard
On August 19, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified enshrining women’s legal right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. A half-century earlier, William Bright proposed a bill granting women the right to vote, and run for office, in the territory of Wyoming at the very first meeting of its legislature.
Bright was influenced by his hard-scrabble upbringing, his wife who was a devoted suffragist, and sadly his racist belief that White women were more intelligent than Black men who had already secured the right to vote.
Some thought the bill a practical joke. Several attempts to derail the bill, led by fellow Wyoming legislator Benjamin Sheeks, were ultimately defeated and Governor Joseph Campbell signed the bill soon after it reached his desk, only two months after first introduced. Woman suffrage as it was called (rather than women’s suffrage which we use today) became the law of the land.
Fueled by women’s suffrage and the appointment of Esther Morris as the first woman judge in Wyoming, male detractors pushed back. James Stillman, Morris’ predecessor refused to provide her with the court records – incensed to have a woman in the role – while Commissioner John Swingle denied having voted for Morris’ appointment though his vote was clearly captured in meeting minutes.
Opposition continued during the 2nd meeting of Wyoming legislators when Sheeks sent the bill to repeal women’s suffrage to the Committee two years after its passage.
Legislator John Fosher was a pivotal figure, becoming the sole individual to determine if women’s suffrage would stand or fall in Wyoming. After the House passed the repeal bill, as expected Governor Campbell vetoed it, but Fosher was absent that day and if he changed his vote (from denying to supporting the repeal), the veto could be annulled. He faced great pressure from his peers to change his vote. Furthermore, as a saloon owner he felt growing confusion about supporting suffrage since he observed a deepening connection between the temperance and women’s movements.
Fosher didn’t change his vote, women’s suffrage prevailed and was never again debated in Wyoming. By 1873, less than five years from William Bright introducing Bill #70 for woman suffrage, many men (and women) had completely shifted their thinking on the formerly divisive issue.
Justice John Kingman, who had played a key role in Esther Morris’ appointment as the 1st woman judge in Wyoming, described the shift:
This change in public sentiment is radical. Colonel Steele was formerly bitterly opposed and, in the Legislature of 1871, made a violent speech against it. Now he is strongly in favor… Another leading opponent was bitterly hostile and so was his wife. But last summer he announced he and his wife altered their minds.
When Wyoming sought to become a state in the early 1890’s, women’s suffrage was the major obstacle to its acceptance. The men of Wyoming held a major conference to debate the issue and at its conclusion sent the Governor a message: Stand firm for the women. We will wait 100 years if need be. We will not come in as a state without the women.
Launching the Fight for Women’s Suffrage
The famous 1848 Convention in Seneca Falls, New York that catalyzed the battle for the women’s vote showcases prominent men on both sides of the suffrage debate.
Men played critical roles at the conference. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass brought visibility and gravitas, passionately defending the right of women to vote while James Mott and Thomas McClintock (husbands of two of the primary convention organizers) chaired major parts of the gathering. Conversely, the husband of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the famed suffragist without whom the conference would never have happened, was not in attendance nor did he support women’s suffrage, thinking it a bridge too far.
Of the 100 convention participants, whose work on those three momentous days resulted in the Declaration of Sentiments and set in motion the fight for women’s equality, one-third were men.
Seventy-Two Years from Launch to Victory
The suffrage battle employed two strategies, a focus on the passage of national legislation and a state-by-state approach. Western states were in the vanguard and by 1916, ten of the eleven states permitting women to vote were west of the Rocky Mountains with Kansas as the exception.
Another divide in the women’s fight for suffrage centered on how intensely to push change. Joseph Carey, elected Governor of Wyoming in 1910, was a staunch supporter of women’s right to vote yet decried the aggressive approach favored by the Congressional Union which modeled the take-no-prisoners approach of Britain’s suffrage visionary Emmeline Pankhurst.
In 1914, Carey sent a letter to American suffrage leader Anna Shaw who was aligned with mainstream methods, writing:
At the last general election in this state, 2 or 3 women appeared – I think, they called themselves members of the Congressional Union – to fight men running on the Democratic ticket. What they did brought the cause into disrepute. The way to keep up the fight is to do your work in the states.
Yet the kinder, gentler approach – which guided the failed vote for women’s suffrage in New York state in 1914 – didn’t seem to be getting the job done.
What seemingly helped in turning the tide was a parade led by Congressional Union co-founder Alice Paul and attended by over a half million people in Washington, D.C. Intentionally planned for the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s Inauguration, all eyes were turned on the parade and few greeted Wilson upon his arrival, much to his chagrin.
In his younger days, Wilson described women’s suffrage as, “the foundation of every evil in this country.” Given its political expedience, Wilson suggested during his 1916 reelection campaign that he was coming around to support women’s suffrage but provided no specifics or accountabilities.
Alice Paul’s group the Congressional Union – done with waiting any longer – picketed the White House for 18 months following the inauguration, refusing to let up when the country was entering World War I. While serving a 6-month prison term, Paul went on a hunger strike and by this point, those fighting for women’s right to vote had unified, collectively pushing for a Constitutional Amendment.
As word leaked about the poor prison conditions as well as guards force-feeding women prisoners, the pressure grew on Wilson ahead of the 1918 mid-term elections. Finally, he threw his support behind women’s suffrage, successfully lobbying the House to take up the vote on the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.
Every effort was made to ensure passage of the vote in the House. Tennessee Representative Thetus Tims opted to postpone setting his broken arm and shoulder so as to not miss the vote while New York Congressman Fredrick Hicks left his dying wife – at her suggestion – to support women’s suffrage. The amendment passed by exactly two-thirds. Wilson implored the Senate to pass the bill but it was not enough, ending shy by two votes of the 2/3rd’s necessary majority.
With another year of effort, the proposed amendment finally made it through Congress yet a last battle remained, ratification by 36 states. By the summer of 1920, with 35 states on board – one less than needed – Tennessee became the 36th state resulting in ratification of the 19th Amendment, but not without a cliff-hanger ending.
After passing the Tennessee Senate, the House was one vote shy when the Speaker withdrew his support. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, young Harry Burns (just 24) changed his vote to support women’s suffrage, encouraged by his mother to do so in a note.
It was final! After 72 long and tumultuous years, the U.S. Constitution ensured women’s right to vote.
With the upcoming presidential election this November, let us remember all it’s taken to ensure the universal right to vote. Please don’t waste yours and do what you can to encourage others.
All the best,
Lisa D’Annolfo Levey and Bryan Levey
- Visit to Wyoming State Archives: Personal Letters to and from Governor Joseph Carey from 1910 to 1914
- Reform Is Where You Find It, The Roots of Woman Suffrage in Wyoming by Michael A. Massie
- Visit to Women’s Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls, New York
- America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines by Gail Collins, April 24, 2007