Giving women the vote 100 years ago - amid fears of socialism and race

With June 4, 2019 marking the 100th anniversary of the approval by Congress of a constitutional change which guaranteed women the ability to vote in the United States, a look back at the final debates in the House and Senate showcased dire predictions that giving women the franchise would bring a rush to socialism in American and spur racial problems in the South.

"It will not only add to the growth of socialism, but will likewise contribute to the upbuilding of femininism and Bolshevism in America," thundered Rep. Frank Clark, a Florida Democrat who bitterly opposed the women's suffrage amendment.

"Every Socialist and every Bolshevist throughout the land wherever you find him is an ardent advocate of woman suffrage, and he wants it by Federal amendment," Clark said on the House floor, as he also warned the change would stir racial troubles in the South.

"Make this amendment a part of the Federal Constitution and the negro women of the Southern States, under the tutelage of the fast-growing socialistic element of our common country, will become fanatical on the subject of voting and will reawaken in the negro men an intense and not easily quenched desire to again become a political factor," said Clark, who led opposition to the constitutional change.

While Clark's arguments did not sway the debate, there were clear sectional differences, as the House voted 304-90 in favor of the proposed constitutional change to allow women to vote.

As debate concluded in the House on May 21, 1919, supporters said it was simply time for women to be allowed to vote in every state of the Union.

"I want to congratulate the good women who fought the good fight all these years, and who now see the dawn of the day of final victory," said Rep. Frank Mondell, the House Republican Leader from Wyoming, a state which allowed women to vote when it was still a territory.

"When I came here the voice of the suffragist was like that of John the Baptist crying in the wilderness," said former House Speaker "Champ" Clark, a Democrat from Missouri.

"I think my wife and my daughter are as capable of voting as most men in this country are," the Democratic Leader said to applause.

But for others, what would ultimately become the 19th Amendment - referred to in debate as the 'Susan B. Anthony Amendment' - was not something to celebrate, as many southern lawmakers eyed the effort with derision and suspicion, with the Civil War, Reconstruction, and states' rights bubbling in the political background.

"Is suffrage such a question as should be snatched from the control of the States and lodged in a rapidly centralizing government?" asked Rep. Eugene Black, a Democrat from Texas, as a number of lawmakers in both parties said the individual states should decide who votes, and who does not.

"Under the fifteenth amendment, not only the negro, for whom it was adopted, but the sons of every other race under the sun may vote in any State in the Union, provided they or their ancestors have once been naturalized," argued Rep. Rufus Hardy, a Democrat from Texas.

"What evils may yet come of the fifteenth amendment only the future may unfold," Hardy said, as he drew applause in advocating states' rights, and denouncing federal decisions about who could vote.

"It is a privilege to be granted or withheld at the pleasure of the States," said Rep. Clark of Florida.

But some urged southern lawmakers to reconsider, asking the 'gentlemen of Dixie' to give their mothers a chance to vote for them.

Several weeks later, as the Senate vote on the 19th amendment approached in early June, the debate became more testy - more focused on race - and the right of states to determine who can vote.

"When it says that there shall be no restriction of the suffrage on account of sex, it means the female sex, and means the millions upon millions of Negro women in the South," said Sen. Ellison Smith, a Democrat from South Carolina.

The argument from southern Senators was simple - the states should decide who votes, not the federal government.  It was a preview of the battles to come during the Civil Rights era.

"Mr. President, it is not a question today as to whether the women of American should have the right to vote," said Sen. Oscar Underwood, a Democrat from Alabama.  “It is a question of whether, in the end, our Government shall live.”

Supporters of the amendment openly acknowledged that black women in the South probably would not be allowed to vote by southern states - precisely in the same way that hurdles had been placed in the way of black Americans voting in the states of the former Confederacy - a charge that left southern Senators like Smith aggravated.

"I have heard it flippantly remarked by those who propose to vote for this amendment, 'You found a way to keep the Negro man from voting and you will find away to keep the unworthy Negro woman from voting," Smith said on the Senate floor, as he denounced how the South had been "deluged by an alien and unfit race."

“You went specifically after the Negro men in the fifteenth amendment,” Smith said in Senate debate.  “Now you go specifically after the Negro and white women in this amendment.”

On the floor, Smith and other opponents of the amendment pushed back hard on the race question, as Senators sparred over old wounds and scars left by the Fifteenth Amendment and Reconstruction.

"Those of us from the South, where the preponderance of the Negro vote jeopardized our civilization, have maintained that the fifteenth amendment was a crime against our civilization," Smith said.

"The Senator knows full well that the fifteenth amendment embodied the color question," said Sen. Irvine Lenroot, a Republican from Wisconsin, 'the Senator knows just as well that there is no color question at all embodied in this amendment. It relates only to sex."

"The discussion here upon the floor yesterday makes it perfectly apparent that in part at least, in a certain section of this country, this proposed amendment will be a dead letter," acknowledged Sen. James Wadsworth, a Republican from New York.

Wadsworth and others were proven correct, as it took many years for black Americans to get around the poll tax and other means of stopping them from voting.

“Oh, the white man votes because you are careful to apply tests which do not apply to the white man," Senator William Borah, a Republican of Idaho, said to Senators from the South. "You pick out those tests which exclude the Negro and write them into your law, and that excludes the Negro."

In an exchange with Senator John Williams, a Mississippi Democrat, Borah said, “the Negro does not vote (in the South) because he is black. That is the only crime which he has committed.”

Just before the final vote in the Senate, Democrat Edward Gay of Louisiana rose on the Senate floor, making one last call to allow the states to have the final say on whether women should vote.

"I predict that there are 13 States that will never ratify the amendment which the Congress of the United State is about to present to the American people," Gay said.

Gay was wrong, as the amendment was ratified 14 months later in August of 1920.

But it took years for many southern states to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution:

+ Virginia - February 21, 1952

+ Alabama - September 8, 1953

+ Florida - May 13, 1969

+ South Carolina - July 1, 1969

+ Georgia - February 20, 1970

+ Louisiana - June 11, 1970

+ North Carolina - May 6, 1971

+ Mississippi - March 22, 1984

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