August 26th is Women's Equality Day

Aug 25, 2012
Bryn Sullivan

WOMEN'S EQUALITY DAY - August, 26th:

How the 19th Amendment Became Law in August 1920

By Maud Wood Park

This account of the final days before ratification of the woman suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution comes from the closing chapter in suffrage leader Maud Wood Park’s first-person account, “Front Door Lobby.” It’s been slightly edited for length. Park was the chief lobbyist in Washington D.C. during the final years for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, led by veteran activist Carrie Chapman Catt.

The last hope of getting a thirty-sixth state in time for women to vote in the presidential election of 1920 rested then in Tennessee. But there the Governor had refused to call a special session because he believed that a provision of the state constitution required action in regard to ratification to be taken at a regular session. . . . After considerable delay [and the intervention of President Woodrow Wilson – ed.] the session was called for August 9.  Mrs. [Carrie Chapman] Catt, who had gone to Tennessee on June 15 with the idea of expediting the preparations, stayed on through the devastating heat of the intervening weeks because she realized how relentless the opposition had become and how unscrupulous its tactics were likely to be. Her insight proved prophetic, for every known or imaginable device for preventing or delaying a favorable vote was tried during the twelve days of the special session. . . .

Although the resolution for ratification passed the Senate with comparatively little difficulty, the struggle in the House was marked by a long series of dramatic surprises in which first one side and then the other appeared to have the upper hand. Even when a vote of 49 in favor to 47 against was taken on August 18, a motion to reconsider held up the decision for three days longer, during which 38 opposed legislators tried the trick, at that time a novel one, of fleeing to a neighboring state in the hope of preventing a quorum.

When that device failed and reconsideration was voted down on August 21, the Speaker of the House, who was the floor leader of the opposition, announced that an injunction against forwarding the certificate of ratification to Washington had been issued by one of the judges of the state Supreme Court. Two days were spent by the suffragists in getting the injunction dissolved, and on the twenty-fourth the certificate was signed by the Governor and started on its way to Washington.

Meanwhile Helen Gardener had arranged with the Department of State to have the certificate examined as soon as it came so that the Secretary of State would be able to take the final step of announcing that the amendment had been adopted. We were fearful that any delay would give opportunity for further injunctions to be brought by the anti-suffragists, who were leaving no stone unturned in their efforts to hold up the announcement of ratification.

At four o'clock on the morning of August 26, the certificate from Tennessee reached Washington, and the Solicitor-General, who had sat up all night waiting for it, made the examination needed before the signature of the Secretary of State could be affixed.

Shortly after eight, that same morning, Mrs. Catt, on her way back fromTennessee, arrived in Washington, and the first thing she did was to telephone to the office of the Secretary of State. Mrs. Harriet Taylor Upton and I were in the room with her and heard her ask him whether the Tennessee certificate had been received. In a moment she put down the telephone turned to us and said, "The Secretary has signed the proclamation, and he wants us to go over to his office and see it before he sends it out."

So quietly as that, we learned that the last step in the enfranchisement of women in the United States had been taken and the struggle of more than seventy years brought to a successful end.

We were all too stunned to make any comment until we were in the cab on our way to the Department of State, where we almost had to stick pins into ourselves to realize that the simple document at which we were looking was, in reality, the long sought charter of liberty for the women of this country. Then Mrs. Catt had a conference with the Solicitor-General about the legal aspects of the fight in Tennessee, for she anticipated that the anti-suffragists would bring suit on that score, as later they did without success.

That evening we had a jubilee meeting at Poli's Theatre, where every seat was taken and standing space was crowded to the last limit permitted by the fire regulations. The greetings and congratulations of the President were presented by the Secretary of State. Mrs. Harriet Taylor Upton and Miss Charl Ormond Williams, who had had important roles in the campaign in Tennessee, told about the "ways that were dark and the tricks that were vain" on the part of the opponents there, and then Mrs. Catt made one of her greatest speeches.

Her journey to New York the next day was as truly a triumphal procession as anything I ever expect to see. At every station at which the train stopped, deputations of women, many of them smiling through tears, were waiting with their arms full of flowers for her.

When she reached the Pennsylvania Terminal in New York, Senator William M. Calder, a Republican, was standing at the door of her car, and Governor Alfred E. Smith was waiting on the main floor to voice the official congratulations of the state of New York on the outstanding achievement of its "distinguished citizen, Carrie Chapman Catt."

The Woman Suffrage Party of New York City presented her with a huge sheaf of her favorite blue delphinium and then formed a procession, led by mounted police and a fine band, with the other officers of the National American Woman Suffrage Association marching, like a guard of honor, beside her motorcar on its way to the celebration at the Hotel Astor.

There is a beautiful picture of her taken just before the procession started, when she stood in the car, the flowers in her arms and her face alight with the joy of triumphant homecoming. No one of us who saw her then will ever cease to be thankful for that perfect moment when she must have felt to the full the happiness of a great task completed.


Reproduced from the National Women's History Project, located in Santa Rosa, CA. 

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Learn more about this important chapter in American history in “Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement” by Robert P. J. Cooney, Jr.

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