One of the great hallmarks of the American national character is determined resolve. When confronted with adversity that we cannot immediately conquer, we dig in, hang on and work for that day when wrongs are righted. August 26 each year stands as a notable anniversary, exemplifying this noble trait. It was on August 26, 1920, that the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution became law. For those who don’t readily recall it, the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote in U. S. elections. While it became law on August 26, 1920, the journey to that point took more than 60 years of brave activism. Along its rocky path, the cause of suffrage gave us many heroic figures, some of whom had Arkansas roots.
The national suffrage movement began in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. The 1848 convention gained early strength as a vehicle for abolition of slavery. In 1840, early suffrage activists, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were attending the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London as delegates, as were their husbands. The credentials committee ruled that women were “constitutionally unfit for public and business meetings.”
Motivated by this slight, Mott and Stanton began a campaign that would last past their lifetimes. In fact, only one attendee to the Seneca conference, Charlotte Woodward, was still alive when the Nineteenth Amendment was enacted. Sadly, Woodward was too ill to cast a ballot.
The suffrage movement gained ground during World War I with many women taking factory (and other traditionally male) jobs to support the war effort. The shift in work roles prompted by the war proved to be such a catalyst that even the more cautious National American Woman Suffrage Association, headed by Carrie Chapman Catt, became more outspoken — reminding President Woodrow Wilson and Congress that women’s war work should be rewarded with recognition of their political equality. Wilson responded by beginning to support woman suffrage. In a speech on September 18, 1918, he said, “We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of right?”
Less than a year later, the U. S. House of Representatives passed, (by a vote of 304 to 90) a proposed Amendment to the Constitution: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any States on Account of sex. The Congress shall have the power by appropriate legislation to enforce the provisions of this article.
On June 4, 1919, the United States Senate endorsed the Amendment by a margin of 56 to 25. The measure was then sent to the states for their approval. While the national government sorted out the issue, many states, including Arkansas pressed forward. In 1916, Alice Paul, the firebrand president of the National Woman’s Party, visited Little Rock to organize a branch of her organization. Catt also came to Arkansas to campaign for women’s suffrage. Owing to these visits, women’s suffrage membership increased significantly. On February 7, 1917, state representative John A. Riggs of Hot Springs introduced in the Arkansas House a women’s primary suffrage bill. It permitted women to vote in primary elections. The Arkansas House approved the measure 71-19, as did the Senate by a margin of 17-15. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Gov. Charles Hillman Brough noted that he favored women’s enfranchisement and considered it an honor to sign the measure. Finally, a women’s suffrage bill passed and made Arkansas the “first non-suffrage state in the Union” to permit women to vote in primary elections.
For a state that had suffered the ignominy of unkind caricature, Arkansas proved itself quite progressive. As November approaches, we should remember Catt, Mott, Stanton, Paul and all the others who made women’s franchise possible. We should honor their labors with our vote.