Throwback Tuesday: Twenty-eight words that changed history

When Dr. Anna Howard Shaw arrived in Springfield in the spring of 1919, her accomplishments in the cause of women’s suffrage were well known. A close friend of Susan B. Anthony, Dr. Shaw had been a leader in the fight for equal voting rights since the late 1880s. Even before then she was a trailblazer, as the first woman to become a minister in the Methodist Protestant Church and a powerful voice for the temperance movement. She also picked up a medical degree along the way.

Dr. Shaw soon dedicated all her efforts to the cause of women’s suffrage. By 1892, she was a leader in the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and in 1904 she became the organization’s president; a post she would hold until 1915. With America’s entry into World War I she led the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense, and even received a Distinguished Service Medal for her work.

“Nothing bigger can come to a human being than to love a great Cause more than life itself, and to have the privilege throughout life of working for that Cause,” she said.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the long-awaited movement toward a Constitutional amendment striking down legal barriers toward voting rights for women was about to reach its summit.

Voting rights for women had been slowly progressing through the nation for close to 50 years, but had not yet reached full enactment. Wyoming had gone first, extending full voting rights to women more than two decades before statehood. Illinois had extended voting rights to women for local school elections in 1891. The state took another a step in 1913, when Governor Edward Dunne signed a bill extending limited voting rights to women for Presidential electors and local offices, but not legislators or statewide officials.

At the time, the Chicago Tribune editorialized, “Illinois’ victory will push the woman’s suffrage movement forward in every country in the world where the women are working and waiting to have slow ground justice accorded them by the men.”

The legislation had been pushed forward in part by Ruth Hanna McCormick, who lobbied legislators in support of the bill: “This is our country no less than yours, gentlemen.” When Dr. Shaw became President of the NAWSA, McCormick chaired its Congressional Committee. By 1929, she would be a member of Congress from Illinois.

Women in Illinois grabbed hold of this new opportunity. When polls opened on April 7, 1914, in the first major election after enactment of the new law, 200,000 women had registered to vote in Chicago alone.

In May 1919, decades of work by great Americans like Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and so many others were finally going to bear fruit. U.S. Rep. James Mann (R-Illinois) brought to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives a proposed 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

The amendment’s language was simple: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Twenty-eight words that changed history, followed by another sentence giving Congress the power to enact enforcement legislation.

On May 21, the proposed amendment passed the U.S. House by a wide margin and went over to the Senate. Two weeks later, even though the vote was closer, the amendment was passed in that chamber as well. Once the two houses of Congress had voted to approve the amendment, the Constitution required three-fourths of the states to ratify any changes to the document. So now the matter was in the hands of the 48 states.

A half century earlier, Illinois had been the first state in the nation to ratify the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Now there was an effort to seize the honor and make history again. On June 9, 1919, a message from Governor Frank Lowden arrived in the office of the clerk of the Illinois House of Representatives. The Governor got right to the point:

“It is an anomaly in our State that women should have the right to vote for presidential electors and not have the right to vote for offices created by our State Constitution. Your honorable body had already taken action granting suffrage to women insofar as that could be done under our Constitution and the Constitution of the United States. You now have the opportunity of helping to complete the work you then began. I recommend the prompt ratification of the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

That same day, State Representative Randolph Boyd (R-Galva) introduced House Joint Resolution 29, stating, “…the proposed amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America is hereby ratified by the Fifty-First General Assembly of the State of Illinois;” and called upon the House to take action the next day.

With the culmination of her life’s work about to come to fruition, Dr. Anna Howard Shaw was present in the capital city. At this moment in history she had come to Springfield, but ironically it was on completely different business. With the conclusion of World War I and the great questions of how to build a postwar world that could make such a catastrophic war impossible in the future, she had arrived as part of a speaking tour in support of President Woodrow Wilson’s proposed League of Nations.

As the 72-year-old crusader reached Springfield, she fell ill with what turned out to be severe pneumonia. As the Illinois House convened to take up the question of ratifying the women’s suffrage amendment, one of its greatest proponents was in a room at St. John’s Hospital in downtown Springfield just a few blocks away.

But if Dr. Shaw was on the sidelines, a group of Illinois women was ready to pick up her banner and carry it to its conclusion. Grace Wilbur Trout had been a leader in the drive for women’s voting rights in Illinois for years as part of her work with the Chicago Political Equity League and the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association, which had elected her as its President in 1912.

Trout had led the fight at the Capitol for voting rights in 1913, along with Jane Addams, Elizabeth Booth and Catherine Waugh McCulloch, who had already been a leader in the Illinois suffrage movement for over 20 years. The group employed what Trout would later call, “a quiet educational campaign…because the only possible way to succeed and secure sufficient votes to pass the measure was to convert some of these so-called ‘opponents’ into friends.” When they met just before the beginning of the legislative session to organize their effort, Dr. Shaw was one of the speakers.

“The work at Springfield became more and more difficult and at times it seemed hopeless,” Trout wrote of the 1913 effort. “No politician believed that we had the slightest chance to pass the suffrage measure.”

But through hard work, the suffragists saw the legislation first pass the Senate 29-15 and then the House 83-58. Though successful, the vote totals showed that much opposition still remained. Accordingly, the Equal Suffrage Association kept up their advocacy for equal voting rights, still working to convert opponents into friends.

Six years later, in June 1919, Trout was addressing the Illinois Federation of Women’s Clubs at its convention in Peoria when she received the news of the Congressional passage of the 19th Amendment. “I was literally showered with peonies from the banquet tables and the women acted as though it was a suffrage jubilee convention,” she wrote. “I now immediately hurried to Springfield where we had already made arrangements for the ratification of the Federal Suffrage Amendment on June 10th.”

At last, the day had arrived. At 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday June 10, 1919, Speaker David Shanahan gaveled the House to order. The body quickly moved to the issue on everyone’s mind. Representative Boyd, a supporter of suffrage who had “stood out against strong pressure of our opponents,” in 1913 according to Trout, presented his resolution.

This time the vote was overwhelming.

By a tally of 135-3, the Illinois House voted to ratify the 19th Amendment and sent the legislation over to the Illinois Senate for concurrence. There, Senator Richard Barr (R-Joliet) sponsored the joint resolution which was adopted by the Senate 46-0.

On that same day, Wisconsin legislators also ratified the amendment, but Illinois once again had been the first. Other states would follow, with Tennessee capping off the drive to approval from 36 state legislatures more than a year later. In August 1920 Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified that the amendment had been formally ratified and was now the law of the land.

Victory came too late for Dr. Anna Howard Shaw. After weeks in the hospital in Springfield, she returned to her home in Pennsylvania still sick with pneumonia. She died there on July 2, 1919, before the Constitutional amendment she had fought so hard to enact became law. She did not live to see her life’s work finally accomplished, but before she drew her last breath she had received a tribute from the people of Illinois.

On the morning of Illinois’ ratification of the amendment, Representative Boyd had not failed to notice the presence in the capital city of the great champion for suffrage. After the amendment was ratified, Boyd brought to the floor House Resolution 64, which directed the clerk of the House to transmit to Dr. Shaw in her hospital room a copy of the now-adopted joint resolution in recognition of her as “a pioneer in the movement to secure equal suffrage in the United States.”