“The face of leadership in our party, the party of woman’s suffrage.”
— business executive Carly Fiorina, in a new ad released by a supportive super PAC on Sept. 14, 2015
In an effective positive ad, GOP presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina turns a Donald Trump insult about her face into a not-so-subtle counterattack. “Look at this face,” she declares as images of women appear on the screen.
But there’s also a factual point she raises — that the Republican Party is “the party of women’s suffrage.” Can she really make that case?
The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, of course, gave women the right to vote. It was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, and ratified on Aug. 18, 1920. The president at the time was Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, and the Web site of the Democratic Party uses that hook to also lay claim to the trophy: “Under the leadership of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. Constitution was amended to grant women the right to vote.”
But the reality is more complicated – and the facts are generally on Fiorina’s side. Still, for the longest time, neither party gave much more than lip service to the cause of suffrage.
Activists for women’s rights had long made common cause with abolitionists but many were shocked that neither the 14th nor 15th amendments gave women the right to vote but instead remained focused on the rights of African American men. The failure to enshrine voting rights for women helped split the civil rights and women’s rights movements.
Still, the GOP, which was responsible for the emancipation of slaves and dominated the presidency in the late 19th century, made a nod to the rights of women in its 1872 party platform: “The Republican party is mindful of its obligations to the loyal women of America for their noble devotion to the cause of freedom. Their admission to wider fields of usefulness is viewed with satisfaction, and the honest demand of any class of citizens for additional rights should be treated with respectful consideration.”
Moreover, the words that would later become the 19th Amendment were first introduced in the Senate by a California Republican, Aaron A. Sargent, in 1878. But it was buried in committee for years and when it finally emerged for a vote, it was defeated 16 to 34 in 1887. Another vote in the Senate did not take place until 1914, even though supporters repeatedly introduced it in Congress.
“Some Republicans were friends of woman suffrage and did introduce their bills and speak on their behalf,” said Alana Jeydel, a political science professor at American River College who exhaustively studied the debates in her 2004 book, “Political Women: The Women’s Movement, Political Institutions, the Battle for Women’s Suffrage and the ERA.” “But my research indicates that support was largely symbolic and the Republicans really tried to keep the woman suffragists at arm’s length while getting the 15th passed and ratified. And then after it is ratified the support (like the statement in the platform of 1872) was pretty symbolic. There was no serious attempt on the part of the Republican party to get a woman suffrage amendment passed.”
Still, at the same time, there was even less support in the Democratic Party, then a bastion of Southern racists who already were actively thwarting the voting rights of black men just added to the constitution and thus had little incentive to let black women also win voting rights. The Democratic Party at the time also was considered the party of states’ rights.
Ironically, it was through the states that the suffrage movement gained leverage, as individual states begin to give women the right to vote, including in presidential elections.
The progressive wing of the GOP increasingly became pro-suffrage. When ex-president Theodore Roosevelt broke off from the GOP and created the Progressive Party, the party platform fully endorsed the idea: “The Progressive party, believing that no people can justly claim to be a true democracy which denies political rights on account of sex, pledges itself to the task of securing equal suffrage to men and women alike.”
By the 1916 presidential election, women were able to vote in enough states with 91 electoral votes, including New York (then with 45 electoral votes). Both the GOP and the Democrats added planks in their platforms in favor of suffrage, but on state-by-state basis.
“The Republican party, reaffirming its faith in government of the people, by the people, for the people, as a measure of justice to one-half the adult people of this country, favors the extension of the suffrage to women, but recognizes the right of each state to settle this question for itself,” said the GOP platform. The Democratic version was: “We recommend the extension of the franchise to the women of the country by the States upon the same terms as to men.”
“Wilson very reluctantly comes around to support suffrage,” Jeydel said. “But he truly just doesn’t care about suffrage.” She said that militant wing of the movement embarrassed him with marches, violent protests and hunger strikes in prison, at a time when he wanted to concentrate on the conclusion of World War I. Here’s a video of pickets outside the White House:
So Wilson, who previously had said that voting rights were a state issue that did not require the attention of the federal government, decided to call for passage of an amendment in a speech on Sept. 30, 1918. Sending the measure to the states for ratification, he reasoned, was in keeping with Democratic Party beliefs in states’ rights.
But the measure fell two votes short in the Senate despite his plea. Meanwhile, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, in an effort to appear nonpartisan, targeted one Democratic senator and one Republican senator for defeat — and was successful in 1918. Further Democratic losses in the midterm elections shifted the balance of power, with the GOP winning narrow control of both the Senate and the House.
Suddenly, suffrage advocates had the votes to pass the amendment, with Republicans overwhelmingly in favor of it. (The vote count in the Senate was 36 Republicans and 20 Democrats in favor, and 8 Republicans and 17 Democrats against.)
“I would never call Wilson a convert. I would call him a pragmatist,” Jeydel said. “Yes, many Democrats voted for it, they could do so and look like they were supporting the war effort (and voting for it only meant it was going to the states). But overall, the progressives within the Republican Party were always the most supportive.”
“The GOP supported woman suffrage first,” said Margaret Susan Thompson, associate professor of history at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. “Wilson took a long time to support it (despite having taught at Bryn Mawr).”
The Pinocchio Test
Broadly speaking, Fiorina gets her history right. The Republican Party was generally more supportive of suffrage, despite mainly paying it lip service, while Democrats, especially in the South, were hostile. Yes, a Democrat was president when the amendment passed, but he was boxed in on the issue — and the amendment only passed once Republicans took control of both houses of Congress. Calling the GOP “the party of women’s suffrage” might stretch the history a tad, but not enough for a full Pinocchio.
One might question whether the positions taken by a political party 100 years ago are relevant in today’s context. But that’s another matter. In this history lesson, Fiorina earns the coveted Geppetto Checkmark.
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