Sunday, August 23, 2020

A Perfect Moment

Maud Wood Park (1871–1955)
From American Women’s Suffrage: Voices from the Long Struggle for the Vote 1776–1965

National Woman’s Party activists, including Mabel Vernon (seated far left) and Anita Pollitzer (standing, right), watch Alice Paul sew a star onto the NWP Ratification Flag, representing another state's ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. National Photo Co., Washington, D.C., 1919–20. (Library of Congress)
When Maud Wood Park transformed notes and documents on the women’s suffrage movement into a memoir describing how, from 1916 to 1920, she and her colleagues worked to ensure the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, she titled the manuscript Front Door Lobby. As she explained in the first sentence of the introduction, “The Front Door Lobby was the half-humorous, half-kindly name given to our Congressional Committee in Washington by one of the press-gallery men there, because, as he explained, we never used backstairs methods.”

The suffragists’ more open and assertive methods of petitioning and persuading lawmakers made a few of the more tradition-bound members of the coalition uncomfortable. Helen Hamilton Gardener, a longtime National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) leader who was the organization’s liaison to Woodrow Wilson, “hated to be called a lobbyist,” according to Park. Even though it was meant as a compliment, the nickname “to her mind, always connoted the objectionable kind of lobbying done in earlier days by women of another sort. She herself rarely went to see any member [of a legislature] whom she did not already know or to whom she had no means of getting a formal introduction.”

Meanwhile, the younger members of the rival National Woman’s Party grew impatient with NAWSA’s well-mannered efforts, whether through the front door or via friendly introductions, and they employed more unorthodox and combative methods to focus public attention on the cause. Led by Alice Paul, NWP activists in early 1917 began the then-unheard-of tactic of picketing the White House; they also organized demonstrations to provoke arrests and went on hunger strikes while in jail. “Rather than impeding the final victory, these two competing approaches actually enhanced prospects for success,” Susan Ware notes in her introduction to the just-published Library of America anthology American Women’s Suffrage.

In the 1923 account Woman Suffrage and Politics, former NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt and fellow suffragist Nettie Rogers Shuler summarized the all-consuming efforts by American women during the previous half century to gain the right to vote:
During that time they were forced to conduct fifty-six campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to get Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to get State constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into State constitutions; 277 campaigns to get State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms, and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.
Initially introduced in 1878, the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment” was finally approved by Congress when, after repeated attempts, it passed the U.S. Senate 56 to 25 in June 1919, with two votes to spare. (With 14 senators not voting, 54 were required for passage.) Still ahead was the need to convince the legislatures of thirty-six states, and in our Story of the Week selection—the final chapter of Front Door Lobby—Maud Wood Park describes the fourteenth-month marathon that culminated in Tennessee’s ratification of the amendment on August 18, 1920. Even then, movement leaders had to fight off various last-minute shenanigans, and they all but escorted Tennessee’s certificate of ratification into the hands of Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby, who certified the document at home and issued a proclamation on August 26, making it the law of the land.

The passage of the amendment was a major victory, and most of us take women’s suffrage for granted as we celebrate it a century later. Yet the struggle continued. “The 1920 milestone had very little meaning for various groups of prospective female voters,” writes Ware. “American Indian women did not become fully eligible to vote until 1924, and Puerto Rican women only in 1935. African American women, most of whom still lived in the South, found their right to vote restricted by Jim Crow legislation alongside black men.” In a recent interview with LOA editors, Ware adds, “Whenever we say ‘women won the right to vote in 1920,’ there should always be a mental asterisk next to that statement.”

Note: Edna Lamprey Stantial, who had been active in suffrage organizations in the 1910s and ’20s and who became the NAWSA archivist in the 1950s, rescued Maud Wood Park’s manuscript from the organization’s files in 1960 and shepherded it to publication as a book, which provides the text used here.

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Ratification by at least thirty-six states—that was the mountainous load that Mrs. Catt took upon her shoulders as soon as the amendment was through the Congress. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.