1918 opened with a bang in Congress. On January 10, two days after President Wilson announced the Fourteen Points at a joint sitting, the House of Representatives approved a constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote.
Republican Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman member of Congress, opened the debate. “Is it not possible that the women of the country have something of value to give the nation at this time?” she asked. “It would be strange indeed if the women of this country through all these years had not developed an intelligence, a feeling, a spiritual force peculiar to themselves, which they held in readiness to give to the world.” Representative Walter Chandler, Republican of New York, reassured listeners that, despite what they might have heard, the suffragist movement was not in fact led by socialists and German sympathizers.
The public gallery was packed with women. The New York Times noted that “nearly every woman who journeyed to the House carried a knitting bag.” Most were confiscated, but a few women succeeded in knitting their way through the debate, as suffragist leaders looked on intently.
Suffragists picketing Capitol, 1918 (www.loc.gov)
It didn’t look good at first. Democrat after Democrat voted against the amendment, the Times reported, seemingly dashing hopes that President Wilson’s endorsement the day before would turn the tide. “We are defeated,” suffragists in the gallery whispered. But the amendment’s supporters had mustered all of their strength. Republican leader James Mann came to the House from his sickbed in Baltimore; Thetus Sims of Tennessee, badly injured, staggered to his seat. When the final count of 274 to 136 was announced, exactly the two-thirds majority needed, “the people in the galleries arose en masse and cheered,” and “members on the floor joined in the jubilation.” A challenge to the vote count was unsuccessful. Outside the Capitol, a thousand women cheered “with all the enthusiasm of collegians after a football victory.”
While the Times reporter seems to have been swept up in the celebratory mood, the editorial page accepted the outcome with resigned huffiness. The issue, it said, was purely political. With the House almost evenly divided, and more and more states allowing women to vote, the Republicans had seen the political wisdom of taking up the suffragist cause. The Democratic Party, despite the “reasonable apprehensions” of its southern members, saw which way the wind was blowing. Wilson abandoned his long-held (and in the the Times’ opinion, correct) view that suffrage was a state, not a federal, issue. In wartime, the Times said, “woman suffrage is but a piffling and subminor matter.” Oh well. The amendment would find “harder sledding” in the Senate.
Suffragist Parade, Fifth Avenue, 1917
Indeed it would. But, on the centennial of this crucial step forward, those of us who can fight sexual harassment because our great-great-grandmothers fought for the vote can, in the words of Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins, sing in grateful chorus:
WELL DONE, WELL DONE, SISTER SUFFRAGETTE!