American History
The Women's Movement

*Many Populists and Progressives were women, although they tended to focus on particular issues.  Many opposed child labour, many supported temperance, and most of them wanted the right to vote.

*The temperance movement had existed since the early 1800s, and although many men supported it, some of its most outspoken advocates were women.  Why might temperance be a women’s issue? (alcoholic husbands might be abusive, absent, or unemployed (and thus unable to support their families).

*In 1873 the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was founded to oppose all alcohol use (but also to oppose tobacco and other drugs, prostitution, bad conditions for the poor, and other social problems). 

*Francis Willard, a teacher at a women’s college, became president in 1879 and held that position for 19 years.  Matilda Carse joined the WCTU when her son was killed by a drunken wagon driver, and she built a publishing business for the Union and found other ways to raise money for the organisation.  The WTCU still exists today.

*One of the most dramatic members of the WTCU was Carrie Nation.  Her first husband had been an alcoholic who died young, but her second husband was a minister.  She was a big woman (about 6 feet tall) and a strong one, calling herself ‘a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn't like,’ and what He didn’t like was alcohol.  She owned a hatchet, and would burst into saloons, run out the patrons, and start chopping up the bar with her hatchet.  Although she did most of her work in Kansas, she also attacked bars in Kansas City, Missouri until a judge banned her from the state.  She also made lecture tours throughout the country where she sold souvenir hatchets.

*Eventually the temperance movement convinced many states and counties to limit or outlaw the manufacture and sale of alcohol, and in 1919 the XVIII Amendment to the US Constitution outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcohol throughout the United States, although it was repealed by the XXI Amendment in 1933.

*Just as the anti-slavery movement had helped women gain experienced in forming large activist organisation, the temperance movement also helped prepare women for the struggle for suffrage.

*Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869, and worked for women’s suffrage the rest of their lives, although by the time they died (1906 and 1902), only four states allowed women to vote.  Wyoming Territory had been the first place in the US to allow women to vote in 1869. 

*By 1900, though, more women were going to college (perhaps one-third of all college students were women), more were working, and more middle-class women (who did not need to work) felt that they were the more moral sex, and that only women’s votes could clean up the cities and that they had a right to vote because public issues reached into people’s homes (of which women were in charge).  Read the quote on page 223.

*In 1900, Mary Chapman Catt was elected president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.  Her plan was for some women to write to their congressmen while others used referenda to try to get local laws passed.  She particularly tried to get wealthy, well-educated women who had free time and the speaking and writing skills needed to form a successful campaign.  These suffrage supporters were called suffragettes, and many were arrested and jailed for protesting in public.

*Some women were opposed to the suffragettes, fearing that their efforts were taking them away from their homes, their families, and from other charity work that was more important.  They even feared that it would make women less feminine and expose them to all the ugliness of politics.

*The fact that many of the suffragettes who were jailed were treated badly or chose to go on hunger strikes upset many people, and the fact that during World War I many women went to work while the nation’s men were overseas, contributed to a growing sympathy for the women’s movement.

*In June 1919, Congress passed the XIX Amendment, giving women the right to vote in all elections nationwide.  36 states had to ratify it before it became part of the Constitution.  By March, 1920, 35 states had done so, and Tennessee was considering it.

*This was tough.  Governor Albert H. Roberts supported suffrage, and wanted to call the legislature to session to vote on it.  Technically, though, the State constitution said that no legislature could vote on an amendment until another election had been held since the amendment was made available for voting—thus allowing the next election to be a sort of referendum on the amendment.  However, some of Robert’s advisors insisted that he could call a special session of the legislature anyway, and when President Wilson, who had finally decided to support women’s suffrage, asked him to, he did.

*On 9 August 1920, the fighting began.  Some anti-suffrage state senators were so obnoxious to their opponents that it hurt their own side of the argument, losing them public sympathy.  The state senate approved suffrage by a 25 to 4 vote on 13 August, which put it all up to the House of Representatives.

*Seth Walker, Speaker of the House, had pledged to support suffrage, but at the last minute changed his mind, and put all his effort into beating it, both in debate and through parliamentary manœuvers and technicalities.  Finally, the vote was scheduled for 18 August, and it seemed that there would be enough votes to defeat the measure. Suffrage supporters were told that all they could do was pray.

*The first vote was simply to table the resolution approving the amendment, letting it die without ever being voted on.  To everyone’s surprise, it tied, 48 to 48, and thus did not pass.  Someone who had pledged to vote to table the resolution had changed his mind.

*The legislature then voted on the amendment itself, and it passed 49 to 47. Harry Burn, an East Tennessee Republican and, at 24, the youngest member of the House, had gotten a telegram from his mother the night before, saying ‘Don't forget to be a good boy,’ and telling him to vote for suffrage, and although he had voted to table it, when it actually came to a vote on the amendment itself, he followed his mother’s advice.  At this point, Seth Walker changed his vote to favour the amendment, so that it officially passed with 50 votes, the number traditionally expected for constitutional issues.

*Harry Burn hired a bodyguard when he got back home, but his district re-elected him anyway.

*Women’s suffrage was now the law of the land throughout the United States thanks to the State of Tennessee, and women cast their votes in 1920, overwhelmingly electing the (supposedly) handsome Warren G. Harding.  This alone proved that women would not necessarily elect the better man.



This page last updated 1 September, 2009.