Who led the historic fight for women’s right to vote — Democrats or Republicans?
The Democratic National Committee’s current website suggests that “for more than 200 years, our party has led the fight for civil rights, health care, Social Security, workers’ rights and women’s rights.” As one Republican commentator pointed out, to suggest that Democrats led the fight for civil rights for 200 years rather ignores the Civil War and the 100 years that followed. What was even more striking, at least to me, is the statement, on the DNC’s “Our History” section, asserting that the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote came about “under the leadership of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson.”
As a historian who writes about women’s suffrage, I had to smile when I read this. Actually Wilson fought against women’s right to vote harder and longer than almost any other politician of his day. Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican apostle of male vigor who captured American imaginations with his use of the bully pulpit, was indifferent to the issue. He insisted women would get the vote when enough of them demanded it. He came around in 1912, when he had been out of office for four years, and needed the votes of the 1.3 million women who had already been enfranchised in six states where equal suffrage was the law. In California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, women in 1912 would cast their votes for president.
TR was running as an independent, on the Bull Moose ticket of the Progressive Party. At the party’s convention, he was the first presidential candidate nominated by a woman — Jane Addams, of Chicago’s Hull House fame — and the first to endorse women’s suffrage on the federal level. And Teddy made sure the party’s platform pledged itself “to the task of security equal suffrage to men and women.”
Both the Democrats and the Republicans that year adopted platforms that instead delegated the issue to the states. And even in 1916, when Wilson’s challenger, Republican Charles Evans Hughes became the first major party candidate to endorse a constitutional amendment as an individual, his Republican Party — and the Democratic Party — both clung to their states-rights platforms.
After Wilson was re-elected, Alice Paul and her National Women’s Party began picketing the White House. These Silent Sentinels, parading with banners that proclaimed their cause, were the first political protests at the presidential residence in American history. At first Woodrow Wilson tried to ignore these suffragists, so as not to create martyrs of them. But after the United States joined World War I, he had them arrested for obstructing sidewalk traffic. By year’s end, some 500 had been arrested, 170 were jailed and many had been subjected to forced feeding and physical abuse.
Alice Paul and her troops were not the only ones pressing Wilson to change his position on suffrage. The president and especially his second wife, Edith Galt Wilson, were both southerners who were horrified at the sight of protestors at the gates of the White House. Wilson much preferred the advocacy of Carrie Chapman Catt, who led the far-larger National American Woman Suffrage Association. Putting aside her own pacifist principles, Catt had committed NAWSA’s two million members to volunteer efforts for the government during the war. She pushed Wilson by her Winning Plan of piling up victories in the states, knowing political pressure was the key to change.
So who led the historic fight for women’s right to vote? I’d say, neither Democrats nor Republicans, but women. Maybe it’s time we took back women’s history not just from historians but from politicians as well.
What do you think? Let me know.