The bumpy road to women’s suffrage

The hot issue in American domestic politics 100 years ago this summer was women’s suffrage.

After failing to pass several times in Congress, due largely to opposition from Southern Democrats, the proposal that became the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution finally carried the House in May 1919 and the Senate on June 2 of that year. President Woodrow Wilson had called Congress into special session to get the measure passed.

That left the amendment process up to the states, three-fourths of which had to approve it in order to achieve ratification. Voting in state legislatures began immediately, with Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan voting Yes on June 10.

Iowa became the 10th state to approve the 19th Amendment, doing so on July 2.

When Tennessee finally said Yes more than a year later, on Aug. 20, 1920, it became the 36th state to ratify, and women finally were guaranteed the right to vote nationwide. 

Their enfranchisement enabled them to participate in the election of President Warren G. Harding in November of that year.

Twenty-six other nations had granted women the right to vote before the United States did so.

Another high-profile national issue had preceded the women’s suffrage amendment by only a few months. That was prohibition of alcohol beverages, achieved nationally by the 18th Amendment. 

Congress had approved that proposed amendment in December 1917, and it became law after Nebraska ratified it as the 36th state to do so, on Jan. 16, 1919. 

Iowa’s approval took place a day earlier, on Jan. 15.

The two issues — prohibition and women’s suffrage — were closely linked in public discourse. 

Both sides on the suffrage question agreed that women, if given the vote, would likely add strength to the prohibition effort. Wives, and their children, were recognized as the all-too-frequent victims of their husbands’ weakness for the temptations of the saloon, with drunkenness and poverty as results. 

Iowa proved a microcosm of that national battle in 1918 and 1919, and Greene County was likewise a microcosm of Iowa’s statewide battle.

Because anti-prohibition voters tended to gravitate to the Democratic Party, where German and Irish Catholics accepted alcohol as part of their culture, that party was consequently reluctant to favor women’s suffrage. But some conservative Protestants also opposed giving women the vote, claiming that Scripture gave men the responsibility to govern society, with women ordained to concentrate on home life. 

Protestant nativism also played a role; why should native-born women be denied the vote while illiterate immigrant men were granted it? 

Two Greene County newspapers took opposite sides on women’s suffrage. 

Lowrie Smith, editor of the Scranton newspaper, argued that women, who were morally superior to men, should stay above the sordid fray of politics and be protected from it. 

Vic Lovejoy, editor of the Jefferson Bee, disagreed, holding that women possessed God-given moral superiority which couldn’t be harmed by giving them the right to vote.

In 1894, Iowa granted women a partial victory by allowing them to vote in city and school district issue elections like bonding and tax levies. Their ballots, though, were to be kept separate and tallied separately.

That provision allows historians to see if there was actually a difference in voting by the sexes. It turns out there was. Brother Tom Morain in his book “Prairie Grass Roots” describes some of the distinctions.

In 1915, the Jefferson school district voted on constructing a new high school building. Jefferson women voted 194 to 137 in favor, while men voted 234 to 327 against it.

Statewide, results on similar issues were the same. Women consistently provided more votes than men for local improvements regarding health, safety and education.

In 1916, three years before the federal 19th Amendment, the Iowa Legislature called for a statewide referendum on whether to strike the word “male” from the Iowa Constitution in regard to full suffrage. The issue was placed on the June primary ballot, in which of course only men voted.

Greene County’s male voters voted in favor of full voting rights for women, 1,692 to 1,018. But statewide the measure went down to defeat, with counties that were more heavily Catholic, Democratic and “wet” voting No and Protestant, Republican and “dry” ones providing more favorable support. 

In Greene County, Jefferson precincts voted Yes by about 70 percent. 

Grand Junction, with a higher Democratic and Catholic percentage than Jefferson, barely favored it, 160 to 155. Cedar Twp. split 40 to 40. Scranton and Willow townships were the only precincts to vote against it, and Lovejoy credited the Scranton editor for that vote.

Under the Iowa Constitution, women still couldn’t serve in the legislature even after ratification of the 19th Amendment. That change was finally made in 1926, when a statewide referendum removed that limitation. 

Greene County voted to make the change by 721 to 222 — an overwhelming Yes vote, but with 222 voters still of the opinion that women should not be allowed to make laws.

With the passage of time, the nation decided that prohibition was a mistake, and the 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933. 

Women’s suffrage, however, has stood the test of time.

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