September 20, 2021 • History Factory
The following conversation is an edited excerpt from an episode of ‘The History Factory Plugged In Podcast,’ titled “The Road to Women’s Suffrage.” The interview features host and History Factory President Jason Dressel and one of our former curators, Eden Slone.
While we’re still on our summer season break, we thought we’d share this interview with you in honor of National Voter Registration Day on September 28. For more information on how you can register to vote, visit www.vote.org.
Eden Slone: Thanks for having me, Jason. And it’s a pleasure to be here, of course. You’ve hit upon my favorite era of history, so I’m really excited to talk about suffrage today.
Jason Dressel: And I guess one of the first things to just clarify for our listeners is that there were women who could vote before the 19th Amendment was passed, but there were also essentially women afterward who were still not able to vote. So how did that come about?
ES: So, first, some women who could vote before the 19th Amendment was passed—this really surprised me because I think, like you said, the common misconception is that the 19th Amendment meant, “All right, women can vote now.”
But there are some states and instances where women were voting before 1920. New Jersey allowed it in 1776. So right at the dawn of the United States, women were voting in the new state of New Jersey. According to the National Archives, the New Jersey state constitution restricted the vote to property owners but made no mention of sex or race. Later statutes even referred to voters as “he or she,” unquote. So women were voting at local, state and national levels.
But then in 1807 there were laws passed in New Jersey that only let white taxpaying men vote, which obviously excluded women and free Black men at the time. Then another example is, in 1869, Wyoming—which was then a territory, not a state yet—passed the first law that specifically stated women can vote. And so when Wyoming became a state about 20 years later, the laws applied, so some women in Wyoming were voting close to 50 years before the 19th Amendment.
But then, even after the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, there were many women who could not cast a ballot. Women of color, poor women, women in U.S. territories like Puerto Rico.
We had the 14th and 15th Amendments passed in the late 1860s, early 1870s, but many Black men were still disenfranchised because even though these amendments were supposed to give them voting rights, many Southern states passed laws and new strategies to keep them out of the voting booth. So after the 19th Amendment passed, those laws and strategies were now used against Black women. Literacy tests, for example, with questions like, “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap,” or poll taxes or even threatening physical violence if Black men and women tried to vote or register to vote. So passage of a law doesn’t always mean immediate equality.
JD: And the other thing that also was surprising to learn is that there were already enough challenges to overcome for women to make this progress, but there was also a lot of women in the country that were opposed to allowing women to vote. Why do you think that is?
ES: I think the best way to talk about that is direct from the sources, because there are a lot of reasons why I think women at the time were fighting against their own right to vote. If we look at—there’s this great pamphlet from the 1910s that was distributed by what was called the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage, and it was founded by a woman. And the pamphlet says here—it gives a few lists, a few reasons. It said a few examples, such as: 90% of the women either do not want it or do not care because it means competition of women with men instead of cooperation; 80% of the women eligible to vote are married and can only double or annul their husbands’ votes, so it can be of no benefit commensurate with the additional expense involved; in some states, more voting women than voting men will place the government under petticoat rule. So these are just a few examples from that one pamphlet of examples of, at least from the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage, why they don’t want women have the right to vote. So, gives you a little bit of an understanding there.
JD: I saw some examples that focus on this interpretation that all genders can do different things. And there was even this sort of twist of, “What, we’re now going to have men at home with the children?” They positioned it as, if we go down this rabbit hole, how it completely undermines or disrupts these different roles that we had for gender.
ES: I think that was one of the main points that they would use with cartoons. They would show men pushing the baby carriages. It was like, “Oh, my gosh, men will have to take care of the kids.”
JD: The other thing of course that struck me as really ironic—and we did a podcast on this earlier in the year—was the 18th Amendment, Prohibition, and, of course, the temperance movement. As you can imagine, a lot of industries were not exactly excited about the notion of women having more political power and influence, and certainly the liquor industry was one of the strong opposers to women being able to vote. But what’s your perspective on kind of other industries in terms of how they felt about this movement?
ES: Yeah, the biggest one I see is definitely the liquor industry. Like you mentioned, you have this temperance movement that started before that was dominated by women. So a lot of brewers, distillers, others in the industry, they feared that giving women the right to vote would threaten their business.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, for example, supported suffrage because they wanted Prohibition to pass, and they thought that women voting might be a good way to bring it about.
JD: What’s the story of how the 19th Amendment came to be? You know, we had a happy hour a couple of weeks ago. I believe your cocktail was inspired by a hotel in Nashville.
ES: The drink was from the Hermitage Hotel, where they have this drink called the Carrie, which is named after Carrie Chapman Catt, who was a prominent suffragette. Essentially, after a very long fought battle and some failures beforehand, it was August 1920 and the U.S. House and Senate had already passed the 19th Amendment. But for it to become an amendment, you need states to ratify it. At the time, they needed 36 states to ratify to become a law, and it had been ratified in 35 states. Eight states did not ratify it.
The last chance for the 19th Amendment was Tennessee.
And as the Tennessee legislature prepared to vote, people on both sides of the fight swarmed the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, to be close to the Capitol building and to continue those last-ditch lobbying efforts. Carrie Chapman Catt, who I mentioned before—she was the National American Woman Suffrage Association president, and she rented a suite in in the hotel. And in the same hotel, some anti-suffragists had also turned their suite into a quasi-speakeasy there, plying legislators with free alcohol, even during Prohibition.
So, they’re getting free alcohol and free anti-suffrage arguments. As the vote drew closer, the Hermitage Hotel lobby grew more and more tense. Shouting matches and even fistfights broke out. There were reports of special interests on both sides bribing legislators. Carrie Chapman Catt was pretty sure her phone was being tapped, and other suffragists kept catching strange men hanging out around the rooms trying to eavesdrop.
So then the Tennessee Senate voted for suffrage, and then ratification of the amendment came down to one vote in the House. So, this is the fourth quarter, final seconds, Hail Mary situation here. And a 24-year-old representative, Harry Burn, who had opposed this effort, actually voted for suffrage. And as the legend goes, Harry read a letter from his mother before the vote, which said, among other things, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help this Catt.” And he did just that and he voted for it. The rest is history, as they say. So it’s that final Tennessee smackdown, if you will, is a really important one in the history of ratifying the 19th Amendment. That’s—it’s, like you said, a very dramatic story.
To listen to the entire episode, click here or listen in the player below.
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