Women’s suffrage in the United States begins with a series of loses. From 1777 through 1807, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and eventually throughout the United States, lost the right to vote. For over a century afterward, activists worked to restore the right.
One hundred and five years ago, on January 12, 1915, the United States House of Representatives rejected a voted, 204-174 (here is a breakdown by state and political party, or a more colorful depiction), to reject a constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote. This was the second time that the women’s suffrage had been defeated in less than a year, and the third vote overall. The previous vote was he’d in March 1914, shortly before World War II began. The first time that the suffrage amendment was brought to Congress was 1868.
It would be another four years before the amendment was passed. In the meantime, in 1918, the amendment passed the House but failed in the Senate by two votes. In 1919, the 19th Amendment passed, declaring that the right “to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Politicians wanted the amendment to become effective before the 1920 general election, so President Wilson called a special session of Congress and the bill was brought before the House again. The amendment, known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment passed 304 to 89 on May 21, 1919. After the senate ratified the amendment, 36 states needed to ratify it to become law. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state. The 1920 federal election was the first which allowed women to vote, which historians believe was the reason that Warren G. Harding won the presidency.
What is often overlooked is that the 19th amendment only granted suffrage to white women. The 1924 Indian Citizenship Act initially stated that “full” citizenship would be granted to Native Americans, but the Senate removed the word “full” and did not include suffrage. It was not until 1948 that the last prohibitions against Native American suffrage were removed. Chinese-Americans were granted suffrage in 1943 under the Magnuson Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act. The McCarran-Walter Act removed barriers for all Asians in 1952. Finally the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited discriminatory restrictions on voting rights, allowing blacks, who had been prevented by lynching, literacy tests, and other barriers, to vote. In 1971, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18., as Vietnam War protestors argued that those who were old enough to fight were old enough to vote.
Switzerland was one of the last countries in western Europe to grant female suffrage, in 1971. But within thirty years, it was one of the few countries to have more women serving in the government. Saudi Arabia granted women suffrage in 2011, allowing them to vote in 2015.
Seventeen years after the vote failed in the House of Representatives, on January 12, 1932, Hattie Ophelia Wyatt Caraway becomes the first woman elected to the United States Senate. She served for fourteen years.
Hattie Caraway (February 1, 1878-December 21, 1950) was born on a farm near Bakerville, Tennessee to William Carroll Wyatt, a farmer and shopkeeper, and Lucy Mildred Burch Wyatt. She received a B.A. in 1896 from the Dickson (Tennessee) Normal College and taught school for several years in rural Arkansas, with her fiancé , Thaddeus Horatio Caraway. They had three sons, Robert, Paul, and Forrest, who all became West Point cadets. Thaddeus became an attorney, and eventually served four terms in the House and two terms in the Senate. Though Hattie’s public role was limited, in private she place a critical role in his career, working at campaign headquarters, speaking on his behalf, and receiving much of the credit for his victory in the 1920 election.
Thaddeus died on November 6, 1931, and a few days after his funeral, Governor Harvey Parnell named Hattie as his successor, because “I feel she is entitled to the office held by her distinguished husband, who was my friend..,and his widow is rightfully entitled to the honor.”
The Washington Post protested that, “Mrs. Caraway should have been given the appointment on her own merit and not on the basis of sentimentality or family claim upon the seat.”
A month later, on December 8, Hattie claimed her Senate seat, and her place was guaranteed through the end of term in early 1933. On January 12, 1932, Hattie won the special election against two Independent candidates. The election led to the Arkansas Women’s Democracy Club being created to get out the vote and raise money. On May 10, the deadline for filing for the August 10 Democratic primary, Hattie announced her candidacy. She won 44.7 percent of the vote, carrying 61 of the state’s 75 counties and won the Senate seat.
During her 14-year career, she was known as “Silent Hattie” because she only spoke 15 times. She became the first named chair of the Enrolled Bills Committee in 1933, the first female Senate committee chair, where remained there until she left Congress in 1945. Hattie was also the first woman to preside over the Senate, the first senior woman Senator (after Joe Robinson died in 1937), and the first woman to run a Senate hearing. She was also assigned to the Commerce Committee and the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.
Her civil rights record was mixed, as she voted for the Lucretia Mott Equal Rights Amendment in 1943, but she voted against the antilynching law of 1938 and, in 1942, joined other southern Senators in a filibuster to block a proposed bill that would have eliminated the poll tax.
In 1938, Hattie ran again, supporting New Deal legislation, and defended her gender and age through her campaign. She won the general election, but in 1944, she finished last among the Democratic contenders. In 1945, President Roosevelt nominated her for the Federal Employees’ Compensation Commission. After serving for a year, President Truman promoted her to the commission’s appeals board, where she remained until she died on December 21, 1950.