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The Women Who Came Before


One day after the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) becomes only the third woman to win the nomination of a major U.S. party to be vice president.

Tonight, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) will take the “stage” at the Democratic National Convention to accept the party’s nomination for vice president of the United States. She will be the third woman to receive a major party’s nomination for vice president and her remarks will take place 100 years and one day after American women won the universal right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (Many states allowed women to vote prior to ratification, at least in state and local elections. The 19th amendment ensured that states that had denied that right could no longer do so.)

How did this historic moment come about? And, a century later, how are women faring in public office?

As historians Dr. Janann Sherman and Paula F. Casey of the Brookings Institution explain, the 19th amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1878. It took 41 years, almost a decade of intense lobbying by the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the National Woman’s Party (NWP), and the support of President Woodrow Wilson—who had previously opposed the amendment—for the U.S. Senate and House to approve the measure.

As author Joan Marie Johnson explained in a Marketplace article last year, the lobbying efforts of the NWP and the NAWSA are a great example of meticulous, organized advocacy. The organizations “began keeping note cards on all of the congressmen, and they would go in to see the senators and keep notes and give each other advice … Things like ‘Don’t go see a senator right before lunch — he’s too hungry and he’s not going to pay attention to you,’ but also ‘Don’t close the door when you’re in the office of a senator alone.’” According to the blog Eater, cookbooks, which included suffrage messaging, also played a part in the movement’s grassroots efforts.

The intense shoe-leather lobbying began in 1910, and powerful interests were aligned against the NWP and NAWSA. According to National Public Radio, “Many business interests were opposed to the 19th Amendment.” In fact, “Factory owners feared women voters would push for tougher labor laws. The liquor industry was angling to overcome the women's temperance movement and to end Prohibition.”

The amendment finally prevailed in Congress in May 1919, and the matter moved to the states. Under the Constitution, 36 of the 48 U.S. states (Alaska and Hawaii had not yet been admitted to the union) would need to approve the amendment for it to be ratified.

Things moved quickly in the summer of 1919 as 15 states approved the amendment. But by New Year’s Day 1920, only seven more states had voted for ratification. In February and March 1920, an additional 13 states cast their votes for women’s suffrage—bringing the tally to 35, one shy of ratification. But six states also had rejected the idea, leaving the fate of women’s suffrage up to the state legislatures in Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Vermont, and Tennessee. Five of those, all but Delaware and Tennessee, had strong and vocal anti-suffrage movements.

It was the country music capital of the world that would win the day for women. According to Sherman and Casey, “During the hot, steamy, late July of 1920, Suffs and Antis [supporters and suffrage and those opposed] arrived in Nashville to establish competing headquarters in the venerable Hermitage Hotel.” At that point, most state legislators were undecided. The governor was pro-ratification, but most states in the south had aligned against women’s suffrage.

After nine days of debate in the statehouse and senate, the Assembly approved the motion 49-47 on August 18 after a 24-year-old lawmaker, Harry Burn changed his mind and decided to support women’s right to vote.

Why the change of heart? It was his mother, it turns out, who convinced him to support ratification.

In a speech on the Assembly floor on August 19, Burn said, “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.” Burn’s mother, Febb, was a widower who ran the family farm. As her great-granddaughter, Sandra Burn Boyd, recently told NPR, “Febb was keeping close tabs on the suffrage debate, and she was worried. She hadn’t read anything in the papers about where Harry stood. ‘Her son’s in Nashville fixin’ to be part of this huge vote that would make the decision about women … and she finally decided maybe she needed to nudge him just a little bit.’”

Febb’s letter to her son was not long, but it ended with this warning: “Don’t forget to be a good boy.”

Burn’s vote—and his mother’s letter—came less than three years after “The Night of Terror,” when 33 women representing the NWP, including activist Dorothy Day and a 73-year-old named Mary Nolan, were arrested after peacefully protesting outside the White House. It came 70 years after the Seneca Falls Convention, the first gathering of women’s right supporters, and 48 years after Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in Rochester, N.Y. (President Donald Trump pardoned Anthony for her crimes yesterday, on the 100th anniversary of Tennessee’s ratification of the 19th amendment.)

Would Harry Burn’s mother be pleased with how the following century has unfolded? After all, progress has been slow, and imperfect. Tennessee, in fact, would not elect its first woman to a full term in Congress until the mid-1970s.

U.S. Rep Jeannette Rankin, a Republican from Montana, was the first woman to serve in the U.S. Congress. Her first term (from early 1917 to early 1919) actually was finished even before the House and Senate voted on the 19th amendment. Rankin returned to serve one more term, from 1941-1943.

The first woman to serve in the Senate was 87-year-old Rebecca Latimer Felton, a Democrat from Georgia. As someone appointed to fill a spot vacated when the sitting senator died in office, Latimer served for only one day. It would be another nine years before Hattie Caraway, a Democrat from Arkansas, would be elected to a full six-year term in the U.S. Senate.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS), “a total of 366 women have ever been elected or appointed to Congress” throughout the history of the United States and “these figures include six nonvoting Delegates … as well as one Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico.” That number, 366, would not even fill all of the seats (there are 435) on the U.S. House floor today. The statistics are even more sobering for women of color. Consider this data, also from CRS:

  • Only 47 Black women have ever served in Congress, and more than half of those women (25) are in Congress now;

  • Three-quarters (15) of the 20 Hispanic women ever elected to Congress are in office today;

  • Only 13 Asian Pacific American women have served in Congress, including 10 in office currently; and

  • Only two American Indian women, both in office now, have served in Congress.

The 116th session of Congress, which ends the first week of January 2021, has set a record for female membership. A record 131 women currently serve in the House and the Senate, 107 of whom are Democrats and 24 of whom are Republicans. That is 16 more than served in the 115th Congress (the session that held the previous record).

With Sen. Harris’ formal nomination as the Democrats’ vice presidential pick, one is left to wonder what the data looks like for presidential politics.

According to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, only 21 women have run for president, and six of those are women ran in this election cycle. Victoria Claflin Woodhull was the first. (Woodhull also was the first woman to ever own a Wall Street investment firm.) She ran at the top of the Equal Rights Party’s ticket in 1872 with Frederick Douglass as her running mate against Republican Ulysses S. Grant and Democrat Horace Greeley. The Woodhull/Douglass ticket received no electoral votes.

In 1964, former U.S. representative and U.S. senator Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for president by a major political party, earning 27 first-ballot votes at the Republican National Convention that year. She removed herself from consideration after the first ballot. Barry Goldwater went on to win the Republican nomination.

It was former Secretary of State and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, of course, who in 2016 became the first female to lead a major party ticket.

Kamala Harris is only the eleventh woman to run for the office of vice president of the United States. The first woman to run for vice president was Marietta Stow, who was on the ballot well before women could vote. According to National Geographic, in 1884, Stow, a California newspaper owner, nominated Belva Lockwood, a lawyer, to run for president as the candidate of the Equal Rights Party. Stow nominated herself as the vice-presidential candidate. The Lockwood-Stow ticket won 10 million votes, including 5,000 cast by men.

South Carolina’s Lena Springs was the first woman nominated by delegates of a major party (Democrats) to stand as vice president. Springs received several votes, but the place on the ticket eventually went to Nebraska governor Charles Bryan. In 1952, Charlotta Bass became the first Black woman candidate for vice president. She ran on the Progressive party ticket. It was not until 1984, when New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro was chosen by Walter Mondale, that a woman’s name was on a major party’s ticket as vice president.

Victoria Woodhull, the first female presidential candidate, once said, “Woman, no less than man, can qualify herself for the more onerous occupations of life.”

The campaign Harris undertakes tonight will be onerous. But it also is historic. Even before Joe Biden chose Harris as his running mate, President Donald Trump was facing a tough audience in women. Indeed, an early June HarrisX poll found almost two-thirds of likely women voters said they would not vote for the incumbent president. And Harris already has given Biden a boost of enthusiasm in an important medium in today’s elections: social media.

According to Axios, “The addition of Kamala Harris to the Democratic ticket provided Joe Biden with the biggest surge of online enthusiasm he's seen in the entire campaign.”

Will that excitement last and result in the nation’s first woman in the White House?

The answer to that question starts tonight.

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