Last week, on Aug. 18, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the constitutional right to vote. On Wednesday, we are marking the day when the amendment officially entered the Constitution. We pay little attention to what happened during that curious, chaotic week in between. Why the delay?
It took that extra week for women to gain the right to vote because suffrage opponents launched a brute-force campaign to nullify the ratification and cast doubt upon its legality. The tale of this strange interlude involves racism, legal obstruction and political dirty tricks; it also offers an alarmingly relevant glimpse into what can happen when a bitter and well funded faction refuses to accept the outcome of a political decision involving race, sex and voting rights.
The cheers in the Tennessee House chamber following the very narrow victory for ratification — the deciding vote delivered by its youngest member, the 24-year-old freshman delegate Harry T. Burn — were still echoing when the backlash began. The stakes had been high: Tennessee was the last state needed to propel the 19th Amendment into the Constitution. Burn’s aye had extended the vote to women citizens in every state.
The young delegate was booed and hissed. The commotion in the chamber grew so heated that the governor ordered the sergeant-at-arms to protect Burn. Burn managed to escape the chamber unscathed, but he wasn’t safe yet: Powerful interests were after him.
Among them were racist forces in the South. The 19th Amendment, in theory, extended the vote to Black women. Most other Southern states had already rejected it, considering it a federally imposed racial equality edict. (Southern Black men, who’d won the right to vote with the 15th Amendment in 1870, were by this time disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws and violent intimidation.)
Corporations, convinced that women at the ballot box would be bad for their bottom lines, were also feverishly at work. Manufacturers feared female voters would want to abolish child labor; liquor interests thought they’d push for stronger enforcement of Prohibition; railroads feared women might derail their influence-peddling efforts in state legislatures and Congress. They all sprang into action.
Immediately, opponents tried to discredit the legitimacy of the ratification by accusing Burn of taking a bribe. They manufactured witnesses and affidavits, threatening to publish the smears unless Burn recanted his aye vote. (The plot was eventually exposed, and Burn never budged.)
Meanwhile, anti-suffrage forces in the legislature made parliamentary maneuvers to trap the ratification resolution in limbo, imposing three days of “reconsideration” during which the amendment might be brought up for another vote. If the antis, led by the speaker of the House, Seth Walker, could convince just a couple of delegates to switch to the nay side, Tennessee’s assent could be reversed.
The antis tried to persuade legislators with cash bribes, job offers, blackmail and bare-knuckled threats. They tried to lure pro-ratification delegates away from Nashville with faked telegrams warning of dire family emergencies: Their house was on fire or their wife taken ill.
At the same time, they worked on what today might be called an “AstroTurf” campaign to manufacture grass-roots outrage: Recall petitions were circulated for delegates who had voted for ratification; demands for the governor to resign grew shrill; “indignation meetings” began, which swelled into torch-lit protest rallies around the state fueled by incendiary populist and racist language.
Nevertheless, the ratification coalition held firm. In frustration, more than two dozen anti delegates tried to prevent a quorum for the “reconsideration” vote by absconding in the middle of the night over the state line into Alabama. The ruse failed; ratification held.
Now the conflict moved to the courts. Anti-suffragist lawyers obtained an injunction against the governor, restraining him from signing the ratification resolution. When a judge lifted it and the governor signed, the lawyers elevated their attack to the federal level.
First they tried to restrain the U.S. secretary of state, Bainbridge Colby, from accepting Tennessee’s certification of its vote and proclaiming the 19th Amendment fully ratified, but their plea was dismissed. Then they took their petition to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. That appeal was pending as the mail train carrying the certification papers chugged toward Washington on Aug. 25.
Now it was a race against time: If Colby couldn’t make the official proclamation before the Court of Appeals took up the injunction plea in the morning, the injunction might be granted, and the amendment put in limbo again.
In many states, voter registration deadlines for the November presidential elections were looming. Anti lawyers warned that if women were allowed to vote, the dispute over Tennessee’s ratification might invalidate the election results, throwing the nation into chaos.
The mail train was expected to arrive in Washington in the early morning of Aug. 26. Post Office headquarters ordered that no matter the time, the envelope should be rushed to the State Department. Employees at State waited through the night. It arrived at 4 a.m., and Colby signed the proclamation of the 19th Amendment in his own home, with only an aide as witness. No suffragists were in attendance; there are no photos.
The fight was over. But anti-suffrage forces still refused to accept the verdict.
“Tennessee has not ratified 19th Amendment,” Speaker Walker insisted in a furious wire to Colby. The official proclamation “will not cause any cessation of the fight in this state.”
Walker made good on that threat. Just days after the 19th Amendment became law, Tennessee actually rescinded its ratification. In a sneaky move, the speaker called his troops home from Alabama and rammed through the repeal while House amendment supporters were at home, then convinced the Senate to join by tying the legislators’ per diem pay to the nullification measure. The governor, facing re-election, signed on, but it was moot: There are no do-overs in the federal ratification process.
But that didn’t stop anti-suffragists taking their legal crusade all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was finally dismissed in 1922. And as we know, Tennessee and the other Southern states would subvert the 19th Amendment by applying Jim Crow voting restrictions — literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation and violence — to Black women as well as to Black men for 45 more years.
On Wednesday we’ll salute the 19th Amendment with lights and ceremony, but the rage and backlash unleashed by the amendment’s expansion of voting rights and promise of a more inclusive democracy should not be ignored.
A national election is just weeks away, and racial justice and the protection voting and women’s rights are again front and center. We hear murmurs raising doubts about the legitimacy of the election and we see overt moves — including crippling the Post Office — to make voting more difficult. There have been angry rallies and real threats of intimidation at the polls. The president, according to his spokeswoman, is still considering whether he will abide by the results of the election.
In 1920, the nation was deeply divided on questions of voting rights and racial justice; in 2020, we still are, and progress is often met with resistance. That angry week in August a century ago might be a useful warning.