Richard Nisley

Passage of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment
History - American Released - Jan 02, 2021
Below are two articles concerning the 1920 passage of the nineteenth amendment (a.k.a. the Susan B. Anthony Amendment), which granted women the right to vote. The first article is my book review of "The Woman Who Dared to Vote: The Trial of Susan B. Anthony". The second article is comprised of excerpts from "19th Amendment: The six-week 'brawl' that won women the right to vote" by Elaine Weiss, correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.


Susan B. Anthony was hardly the shy and retiring type. While demure and reticent on the outside, inside burned the fire of a dedicated social reformer. Much of "The Woman Who Dared to Vote: The Trial of Susan B. Anthony" is devoted to two court cases: "United States v. Susan B. Anthony" and the Supreme Court case, "Minor v. Happersett". The remainder of the book deals with Anthony's close working relationship with fellow suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Born into a Quaker family committed to social equality, Susan B. Anthony was at an early age involved with various social movements: at age 17 she was collecting anti-slavery petitions. Having moved from her native state of Massachusetts to Rochester, New York–presumably to be closer to the reform movements–she became the New York state agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society.

In 1851 she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton on a street corner in Seneca Falls. Though a small village in the mid-19th century, Seneca Falls, New York, was at the center of several reform movements, notably the abolition of slavery, women's rights, and temperance. It was probably Anthony and Stanton's temperance activities that led to their meeting. They were destined to become life-long friends and a formidable pair in the quest for woman's suffrage. Stanton was older, better educated and more articulate than Anthony. Indeed, in the years ahead, when the pair would travel the nation on speaking tours, it was Stanton's name that drew in the crowds. However, Anthony would find her voice in a trial that would electrify the nation, and make hers the face of the suffrage movement as it entered the 20th century.

It was in Seneca Falls, in 1848, that a two-day conference of about 50 women’s rights advocates met and drafted what would become known as the Declaration of Sentiments, modeled roughly after the Declaration of Independence. Among the nineteen resolutions was a proposal to repeal all laws in “conflict, in any way with the true and substantial happiness of woman.” Another proclaimed “that woman is man’s equal—was intended to be so by the Creator.” The basic thrust of all the resolutions was that women should be treated as equal to men in every public endeavor, including the right to vote.
When the Declaration of Sentiments was presented for a vote on the second day of the convention, the right-to-vote resolution (which had been nominated by Elizabeth Cady Stanton) was the most controversial. While the Declaration was approved by acclamation, the suffrage resolution won by a bare majority. Nonetheless, the die had been cast: the Seneca Falls Convention has been forever remembered as the event that launched the women’s suffrage movement.

The turning point that shifted Anthony and Stanton's focus from temperance to woman suffrage, occurred sometime between 1852 and 1854. The pair had been vigorously lobbying for a bill in the New York state legislature that would outlaw the manufacture and distribution of alcoholic beverages within the state. Stanton complained loudly about their frustration in petitioning male legislators. "Let woman never again be guilty of the folly of asking wine and beer-drinkers to put down the liquor traffic."

Later, at the Women's New York State Temperance Society, it was Anthony's turn to speak out. "Woman must carry these temperance principles into politics," she said "If we cannot vote we can influence voters. If man assumes to vote for us, it is time we instruct him how we want voting done."

Indeed, gaining the right to vote was the next logical step. But how? It was Anthony who decided to test the law, by going to the polls on election day and voting and, after being turned away, to file suit in federal court to challenge the law that prevented women from voting. The legal basis for the challenge would be the recently adopted Fourteenth Amendment, part of which reads: "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States."

The problem for Anthony, ironically, was that when she showed up to vote, no one tried to stop her. In the 1872 election, she voted and soon after was arrested and convicted in a widely publicized trial. During the trial, the judge made the egregious blunder of directing the jury to deliver a guilty verdict. He then asked Anthony if she had anything to say. Up to this point she had been quiet. Now she couldn't be silenced. According to historian Ann D. Gordon, "she responded with the most famous speech in the history of the agitation for woman suffrage. Repeatedly ignoring the judge's order to stop talking and sit down, she protested what she called 'this high-handed outrage upon my citizen's rights,' and adding, 'you have trampled upon every foot, every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored.'"

When the judge sentenced Anthony to pay a $100 fine, she responded, "I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty." If the judge had ordered her to be jailed until she paid the fine, Anthony could have appealed her case to the Supreme Court. Instead the judge announced he would order her to be taken into custody, thus closing off that legal avenue.

While the whole sad episode did not go as hoped, the trial did draw the attention of newspapers across the country, making Susan B. Anthony a national figure, while moving the suffragette movement from being a mere curiosity, to a respected national movement that attracted support from thousands of citizens who otherwise knew nothing about what was going on in upstate New York.

The Supreme Court decision they had hoped for came soon after, in 1875. The case was "Minor v. Happersett". However, that court case did not go as hoped for either. The chief justice, who gave the opinion, ruled that "the Constitution of the United States does not consider the right of suffrage upon anyone . . . and in this case specifically a female citizen (Virginia Minor) of the state of Missouri, a right to vote even when a state law granted rights to vote to a certain class of citizens. . . ."

The next logical step was to push for an amendment that specifically granted women the right to vote. In 1878, Anthony and Stanton arranged for Congress to be presented with an amendment giving women the right to vote. The bill was introduced by a Republican Senator named Aaron Sargent of California. Despite repeated efforts, the bill failed to muster the necessary votes needed to pass.

In the early part of the 20th century, with the progressive era in full swing, Anthony and Stanton met with various presidents in an effort to get the amendment passed in congress, but time was running out. By now both women were in their 80s, and not in the best of health. Neither would live to see passage of the amendment. In 1902, Stanton died. Four years later, in 1906, Anthony died. It wasn't until Woodrow Wilson was in the White House, that a president gave the amendment the push it needed to get passed in both houses of congress. With the slimmest of margins (2 votes), the Senate officially passed the bill in the late spring of 1920. In early summer. Wilson signed the bill and sent it off to the states for ratification.


On a midsummer night in 1920, three women rushed to Nashville, Tennessee, on steam-powered trains, converging on the city from different directions. These women were on a mission, called to command their separate forces in what would be one of the pivotal political battles in American history. It was a battle for the soul of American democracy, an epic confrontation to decide: Should American women have the right to vote?

In that summer of 1920 one last state was needed to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – giving all women, in every state, the right to vote in every election: 35 states had ratified, but 36 – or three-fourths of the 48 states in the Union at the time – were required for full ratification.

Tennessee could be the 36th state. If the Tennessee legislature approved the amendment, it would become the law of the land, just in time for the fall 1920 presidential election. If the amendment failed in Tennessee, it could be delayed indefinitely, and perhaps not be enacted anytime in the foreseeable future.

The fight for woman suffrage is one of the defining civil rights struggles in our nation’s history – one that cuts to the heart of what democracy means: Who gets to participate in government? Who has a voice? When we say “We the People” do we really mean everyone? Of course, we are asking those same questions today, as voting rights, citizenship rights, and women’s rights are still burning issues.

Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA ), the preeminent suffrage organization in the nation, was traveling from NAWSA headquarters in New York City to direct the ratification campaign. Catt – a master strategist, brilliant orator, and protégé of Susan B. Anthony – knew this could shape up to be the ultimate battle for her cause, and she would face her greatest challenge.

Sue Shelton White, chairwoman of the Tennessee chapter of the National Woman’s Party (NWP ), the more radical wing of the suffrage movement, arrived fresh from the NWP’s latest picketing demonstration. A lieutenant to NWP founder Alice Paul, White emerged from the third generation of suffragists, the younger women who’d lost patience with the slow progress of the movement. They were tired of asking politely for their rights and were willing to be confrontational, disruptive – even go to prison – for The Cause. White was dispatched to Nashville to manage the NWP’s own campaign to convince the legislature to ratify, working toward the same goal of, but not in concert with, Catt’s NAWSA suffragists.

Rounding out the trio was Josephine Pearson, president of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. A college teacher and dean, Pearson came to Nashville to defend her home state against the “feminist peril” and the “scourge of suffrage” that the 19th Amendment threatened to unleash. She and her sister “antis” swore to maintain their feminine dignity, but fight viciously, to protect Southern women from the dirty world of politics, and especially make certain that Black women would not be allowed the right to vote.

The suffragists understood that Tennessee was a terrible place for a definitive confrontation over the 19th Amendment. Almost all the other states of the former Confederacy had already rejected the amendment, and more were poised to do so, all using the same rationales of opposition. (Even Southern border states like Maryland and Delaware had refused to ratify.) The 19th Amendment promised the vote to all eligible female citizens, including Black women, and these states balked at the federal government “meddling” in state affairs, mandating who should be allowed to vote.

Tennessee was the last best hope for suffragists to get the 36th state to ratify before the pivotal fall presidential election, when the policy direction of the nation would be determined for the foreseeable future; women wanted to have a voice in those decisions. They’d proved their patriotism and citizenship during the recent Great War (a.k.a. World War I) by voluntarily taking on roles never before asked of American women: They’d worked in mines and munition factories, as streetcar conductors, truck drivers, and pilots, as farmerettes and lumberjills, as well as doctors and nurses overseas.

Twenty-six nations had already extended voting rights to women, including Great Britain and, more embarrassingly, Russia and the recently defeated enemy, Germany. Suffragists used this to appeal to not only Congress’ sense of justice, but also sense of guilt, and even wounded national pride. If America had just fought a war “to make the world safe for democracy,” how could it deny half of its citizens a voice in that democracy?

Only after the war, in June 1919, did Congress finally pass the woman suffrage amendment, after 40 years of stalling – a biblical span of debate, deceit, and delay. The amendment had been introduced in 1878, but was voted down, in committee or on the floor of the House or Senate, 28 times.

When the Senate finally passed the amendment by a margin of only two votes, it went to the states for ratification in an off year for many state legislatures – when they were not in regular session – making the process far more difficult. Suffragists had to convince 30 governors to call their legislatures back into special session to act on the amendment, and many balked at the cost, both financial and political.

The governor of Tennessee was among these reluctant politicians; he was running for reelection in a tight primary race and didn’t want his campaign complicated by a woman suffrage showdown. It would require a U.S. Supreme Court decision, arm twisting by the White House, and strenuous effort by the suffragists to force Gov. Albert Roberts to call the legislature back to Nashville. He finally, reluctantly, did, but even so, Tennessee was not a promising site for ratification. The state suffrage association was energetic but fractured by regional and personal animosities, the governor unpopular, the legislature notoriously susceptible to bribery and special interest pressure.

As Carrie Chapman Catt made her way to Nashville, she confessed to a suffrage colleague: “I do not believe there is a ghost of a chance of ratification in Tennessee.” But she also knew there was no choice but to try.

Josephine Pearson, however, was excited as she made her journey to the state capital. Her “anti” colleagues across the state and around the nation were rallying to her side, promising to feverishly fight to prevent what they warned would be “the moral collapse of the nation” should ratification succeed.

Such hyperbole was nothing new: Suffragists had always been considered dangerous, a threat to the natural (meaning male-constructed) order of the world. Over the decades, suffragists endured contempt and ridicule in their communities, their churches, their clubs, the press – and often within their own families. Suffragists were physically attacked by mobs of angry men and boys while police looked the other way. They’d been roughly arrested; been held in fetid, cold, vermin-infested cells; been shackled to the wall; and endured abuse and even torture in jail. When they went on hunger strikes, they were force-fed, tubes rammed up their noses.

All the old tropes about subversive and dangerous suffragists would be trotted out in Nashville and given an additional spin: These women agitators were a threat to Christianity, to the American family, and to the foundations of Southern white supremacy.

With the arrival of the three campaign generals the battle was joined in Nashville, and all the forces – for and against the federal amendment – gathered in the city for a giant six-week brawl. Suffragists from across the state and around the nation flooded into the capital, joined by political party operatives, lobbyists, journalists, and beleaguered legislators.

Republican Warren G. Harding and his vice presidential running mate, Calvin Coolidge, and their Democratic rivals, James Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt, were all carefully calibrating their level of support for Tennessee’s ratification with the calculation of whether it would help or hurt their White House chances and their party.

To make its case more alluring to Tennessee legislators, the liquor lobby sponsored a hospitality suite – really a speak-easy – on the eighth floor of The Hermitage Hotel (where Catt, White, and Pearson were staying), which came to be known as the Jack Daniels Suite, in honor of Tennessee’s favorite spirit. There, legislators were plied with free booze, day and night, and treated to a lesson on why they should vote against ratification.

In the first weeks of the ratification campaign, stalwart native Tennessee suffragists took up the front-line positions in persuading their representatives to support the amendment, chasing them with pledge cards to commit to passage. “I’m with you women ’til the cows come home,” insisted one Tennessee delegate on his card. His, along with many similar pledges, would dissolve in the heat of the Nashville battle.

While Catt’s NAWSA suffragists were traipsing through the hills and hollers of the state, finding their delegates to pledge, White’s Woman’s Party team of veteran field organizers was doing the same. Catt toured the state herself, rallying her troops, conferring with political leaders, compiling a list of which legislators were known to take bribes – it was a long list. Once back in Nashville, she fired off telegrams to the presidential candidates, the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties, prominent U.S. senators, and President Wilson, urging them all to exert whatever pressure they could on Tennessee.

Pearson’s cadre of Tennessee antis was bolstered by the arrival of regional and national anti-suffrage luminaries from New York, Washington, Boston, and many Southern cities. They set up a lavish headquarters in the Hermitage, complete with a “museum” of artifacts and documents they hoped could convince legislators and the public that suffragists were not just wrong, but evil.

One prominent Nashville suffrage leader who was not invited to join the lobbying efforts was Juno Frankie Pierce. As an experienced and respected activist in Nashville’s African American community, she’d organized Black women to take up the suffrage cause, and she had forged a rare cooperative arrangement with white Nashville suffragists to work toward common policy goals. At a time when many suffrage organizations, not only in the South, were racially segregated, Pierce had addressed a recent meeting of the white suffragists, emphasizing the potential strength of Black women voters

“What will the Negro woman do with the vote?” Pierce asked her white allies. “We are interested in the same moral uplift of the community in which we live as you are,” she explained, asking their support for the legislative priorities of the Black community.

It was a taboo-shattering moment of Tennessee women working across the color line to achieve political goals, but even the persuasive Pierce would not be invited to lobby her state’s completely white and male legislature.


When the governor finally convened the legislature into special session and the delegates poured into Nashville, both “suffs” and “antis” were there to meet them at Union Station, armed with floral badges of affiliation – yellow roses for ratification supporters, red roses for those opposed – poised to be pinned on willing lapels. From then on, the Tennessee campaign would be known as the War of the Roses.

The confrontation was intense, and wild. There were spies roaming the hallways, bribes under the table, and maneuvers in the chambers. Nashville was awash with conspiracies and kidnappings and even death threats, compromising setups, fake telegrams calling legislators home to false emergencies. The antis weaponized racial fears and waved the Confederate flag as their symbol of defiance. Commentators called it “suffrage Armageddon.”

The suffragists were betrayed by the speaker of the House, the publisher of one of Nashville’s major daily newspapers, as well as one of the presidential candidates, but also found some unlikely champions, including the Tennessee governor. The pledges to ratify mysteriously dissolved as the pressure on legislators ratcheted up, and on the eve of the final vote the tally showed ratification falling short.

What happened the next morning is one of the great tales of American history. The outcome of the ratification battle came down to a single vote.

Harry Thomas Burn, age 24, a freshman delegate from the tiny eastern town of Niota, had worn a red rose in his lapel and voted with the anti-suffragists on all previous motions. He personally believed women should have the right to vote, but he was up for reelection in the fall, and his constituents opposed the amendment. It seemed safer to just go with the flow of those voting against ratification.

But on the morning of the final tally, he received a letter from his mother, Phoebe (Febb) Burn, a staunch suffragist, who conveyed the usual news about Niota – updates on the family and even a shopping list for Harry. But she also expressed her disappointment that Harry was not mentioned in the newspapers as favoring ratification. “Be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt ... with ratification,” she admonished him.

Burn tucked the letter into his jacket pocket, next to his heart, as he sat through the final debates and roll calls in the House chamber on the morning of Aug. 18. When his name was called for the final vote on ratification, the tally was tied. He could duck no longer.

Burn shocked the chamber by voting aye for ratification. The antis accused him of taking a bribe to change his vote. He was unapologetic. “I believe in full suffrage as a right,” Burn told his colleagues. “And I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

The 19th Amendment entered the U.S. Constitution on Aug. 26, 1920. It was the largest expansion of the electorate in American history. But the amendment still faced resistance, violent reaction, and Supreme Court challenges. And, as we know, the promise of the 19th Amendment was immediately subverted by Jim Crow laws in the Southern states, including Tennessee, impeding the right to vote for many Black women through discriminatory poll taxes, outrageous literacy tests, intimidation, and violence. They were the same tactics used to historically deny the vote to Black men. Congress never used its powers of enforcement – stated clearly in the second section of the amendment – to protect the vote for Black women. And because Native Americans and Asian Americans were not considered citizens in 1920, the 19th Amendment did not apply to the women of those communities until decades later.

(Note: it was not until passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, that Black, Native and Asian American women were granted the right to vote. That said, to this day the struggle for Black women's right to vote goes on in the Deep South.)

While the suffrage movement began with the tireless work of two women, the 19th Amendment has been forever known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. Indeed, in 1979, it was her face that was chosen to grace the silver dollar.

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