This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
On Jan. 25, 1887, some 133 years ago, the first vote on women’s suffrage took place in the U.S. Senate.
Perhaps underscoring the difficulties women had of gaining the rights to the ballot box, 25 members of the Senate didn’t bother to show up and cast their vote.
The measure failed 34-16.
Twenty-seven years and nearly three decades later would pass before the Senate again voted on the 19th Amendment.
The House waited still another year, until 1915, before members reintroduced and voted on the measure.
Ann D. Gordon, a research professor emerita of history at Rutgers University who has studied the women’s suffrage movement, said woman suffragists didn’t act in a political vacuum but were influenced and constrained by national politics.
In writing for the National Park Service’s website, Gordon noted that, in the South, the withdrawal of federal troops as part of the Compromise of 1877 closed Reconstruction and reversed the progress toward political participation made by African Americans in that region.
“Elections in southern states were occasions of racial violence. Federal enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment ceased, and white southerners regained power in Congress,” Gordon wrote. “States in the former Confederacy set about rewriting their constitutions to put obstacles in the way of African American men registering to vote.”
Beginning with Mississippi’s new constitution of 1890, the states defined an assortment of ways to block or significantly reduce Black enfranchisement, she said.
”Black women advocated for the right to vote at a time when they were highly discriminated against, and Black men had become disenfranchised,” Pearl Dowe, the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Oxford College of Emory University, told The Informer. “These women were often shut out of the suffrage movement due to the racist attitudes of white suffragettes. This did not deter Black women who formed their own organizations to advocate for the right to vote for themselves and the end of black male disenfranchisement.”
At about the same time of the 1887 Senate vote, Gordon said discussion began about merging the two suffrage associations before their leaders died.
There were lots of reasons, but the defeat of the amendment seemed to signal the end of an old divide and a chance for suffragists to unite around state action, Gordon wrote.
Through the merger, the National American Woman Suffrage Association came into existence in 1890. Attention to federal protection for a citizen’s right to vote or any federal amendment waned, Gordon noted.
“It happened, then, that in 1890, woman suffragists stopped seeking federal protection for voting rights at the same moment that southern states formalized the exclusion of Black men from the franchise. Their complicity went further,” Gordon wrote.
“To gain ground in the white South, the National American Woman Suffrage Association affirmed in 1903 its belief in the South’s prerogative to legislate white supremacy: the association resolved, it seeks ‘to do away with the requirement of a sex qualification for suffrage. … What other qualifications shall be asked for it leaves to each State.’ The political equality of all citizens was no longer the organized movement’s objective,” Gordon said.
“Woman suffragists turned back to the goal of a constitutional amendment in 1913 and the Senate voted on the measure in 1914 – defeating it again.
“But this time, despite a persistent interest in keeping the focus on state actions and despite a new divide between two suffrage groups, women stayed the course and kept up the pressure until both houses of Congress approved the measure in June 1919.