Woman’s Suffrage vote in W.Va. worthy of Hollywood

In a story worthy of Hollywood, political machinations, a cross-country race, and a vacant seat figured into West Virginia’s vote to ratify the 19th Amendment authorizing woman suffrage.

Carrie Chapman Catt

Governor John Cornwell, co-owner and editor of the Romney Hampshire Review newspaper and the first Democrat elected as governor of West Virginia since the state had joined the United States in 1863, called a special session of the legislature in February 1920. Nationally famous suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt had urged him to do it in January, but he replied the expense of a special session, just to consider ratification, would turn sentiment against the suffragists, especially since he had to call such a session the previous year. However, he had a tax issue that would justify a special session once a matter was settled in court, and he would attach ratification to the agenda. (Across the nation many, if not most, of the votes on ratification came during special sessions of the states’ legislatures.)

When he summoned legislators to the capital at Charleston in February he asked them to consider the question of ratifying the 19th Amendment and legislation to fight profiteering while the economy was still in transition from the Great War.

The (Fairmont) West Virginian newspaper, February 27, quoted the governor’s explanation for including suffrage ratification as the “certainty of the Equal Suffrage Amendment to the Federal Constitution being ratified before the general election, regardless of the action or non-atcion (sic) of West Virginia,” which would require county courts to register the new voters. That would mean a special legislative session of its own, causing ‘a great deal of added expense and confusion.’ If the registration wasn’t completed before the primaries, women would “be given the privilege of voting for candidates after they are nominated but denied the right to participate in the nomination.”

Furthermore, “West Virginia women who favor the suffrage want the men of West Virginia to participate in their enfranchisement and would feel humiliated at the thought of suffrage being extended to them by the men of other states, solely.” Both major parties’ platforms included support for the amendment.

The South says No!

National ratification wasn’t as certain as Cornwell believed. Every state of the old Confederate States of America that had thus far voted on the amendment had defeated it, except Texas and Arkansas The argument was again States Rights—the individual states, not the federal government, should decide which of their citizens could vote. (An unidentified newspaper from southern West Virginia, where Confederate sympathy had been strong during the war, ran a front-page editorial during the special legislative session that said, “If West Virginia ratifies it, it will forcing suffrage down the throats of states who voted against the (Susan B.) Anthony amendment.” The paper complained seven out-of-staters were in Charleston attempting to flip the vote in favor of suffrage but said nothing of the anti-suffrage forces pouring into the capital from outside the state.)

‘All together now! Stop her!’

Southern opposition was also fueled by fear woman’s suffrage would again raise the specter of “negro suffrage,” and historically the woman’s suffrage movement had been aligned with the campaigns for abolishing slavery and prohibiting the sale of liquor, not popular positions in Dixie.

Apart from West Virginia, only seven states had yet to vote, and four of them were in the South—Tennessee, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Florida. That left Connecticut, Vermont and Washington. If suffragists didn’t carry West Virginia, they would probably have to win all three of the states outside the South.

And history said they weren’t going to carry West Virginia.

In 1916 a proposal to grant women the franchise had been put before the voters of the state. Of course, only men could vote.

The proposal passed in just two of 55 counties, in part due to the liquor lobby but primarily because of conservative social and religious beliefs and intense campaigning by anti-suffragists, according to Anne B.W. Effland’s entry on woman suffrage in The West Virginia Encyclopedia, edited by Ken Sullivan (West Virginia Humanities Council, 2006).

World War One helped the suffrage movement

Something had happened since 1916 that cast a different light on things: America entered the Great War, later called World War One. Women’s service as nurses and in other roles changed many minds, male and female. But had enough minds been changed? The West Virginian of February 27 said passage was likely in the Senate, but not in the House.

Over 10,000 Army nurses served overseas. 102 died overseas; 3 received the Distinguished Service Medal.

Instead, the West Virginia House bill narrowly passed, 45–42 (later changed to 47–40, according to the West Virginian, March 4), but the bill introduced in the Senate by Harvey W. Harmer of Clarksburg, who had introduced a resolution in the House of Delegates 25 years earlier to grant women the franchise, bogged down like trench fighting in the late war. The vote was a 14–14 tie. Both sides had a senator who hadn’t voted. Problem was, both of them were out of state.

Get them back here!

The hopes of the suffragists rested on progressive Republican Jesse A. Bloch of Wheeling, who was doing some resting himself. He was on vacation in California, expected ratification to pass the legislature without him, and didn’t intend to take part in the special session.

The missing anti-suffrage senator was A.W. Montgomery, whose home county reportedly had voted 10–1 against female franchise in 1916. He was called back from Illinois to counter Bloch’s vote, should the Wheeling senator return from California.

But Montgomery had his own wee problem. He’d been living in Illinois for over six months, supervising a construction project, and had sent a letter to Governor Cornwell resigning from the Senate. But now that his vote was needed he said he had sent another letter, withdrawing his resignation.

Still the question persisted: Could Montgomery be seated in the Senate?

Jesse Bloch’s cross-country race

Meanwhile, Bloch was speeding across America. The “antis,” as those opposed to suffrage were called, sent telegrams to him in California warning him women might vote for anti-tobacco bills, which would hurt his family business, Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company. (Among their products was Mail Pouch.) A delegation of “antis” went to Wheeling in an attempt to intercept him on his way back from California and try to change his expected vote, but he didn’t pass through there.

A few days earlier Harmer—the bill’s sponsor in the Senate—and Secretary of State Houston G. Young, had placed a long-distance call (Remember when those cost extra?) imploring Bloch to return. According to a National Park Service “Women’s Suffrage Timeline” he was taking a swim when the call came in and didn’t even take time to change out of his trunks. He just grabbed his golf clubs and hopped a train. The suffrage supporters had offered to pay for a plane ticket, but Bloch’s wife refused, citing the dangers of air travel.

When they reached Chicago she stayed behind while he boarded a special train that consisted only of the Pullman coach he rode in and two baggage coaches “for ballast, as it were,” the West Virginian noted on March 10. The Pullman broke down while still in Chicago but was repaired or replaced, and the express roared 310 miles to Cincinnati in 345 minutes, “something of a record for a passenger train.” Had the coach broken down enroute, Bloch might not have made it in time. The “antis” said luck had been against them through the entire proceedings.

With light baggage, golf clubs and a thermos of coffee, Bloch arrived in Charleston in the early morning (2:30, according to the National Parks article). The contents of the thermos were immediately verified by one of the four men who met him; claims of drunkenness weren’t going to cloud his vote. At a hotel Harmer “appraised him of existing conditions and ‘put him next’ to which way the wind was blowing,” the West Virginian of March 10 said, adding that he was given an ovation when he walked into the Senate chamber where “He was accosted . . . by a suffragist who pinned a yellow flower (symbol of the movement) on his coat lapel.”

Will the anti-suffragist be seated?

The Senate still had to determine whether or not to seat Montgomery. That afternoon it decided not to, because he had lived out of state for half the year and was going back to Illinois as soon as he had voted. Reportedly, a woman sat down in his vacant seat after the decision. The Senate passed the House bill at 6:15. A leader of the “antis,” Wallace B. Gribble, voted in favor, for the purpose of reconsideration later, according to Wheeling’s The Intelligencer, March 11; the Intelligencer said the vote was 16–13, but most other sources say the final vote was 15–14. Immediately following passage, a resolution was introduced to reconsider the vote, ostensibly to forestall any later attempt to overturn it. That was voted down. The House also refused to reconsider its ratification, 40–31.

Suffrage ‘steam roller’

The Intelligencer did not seem to favor passage, and said political bosses of both parties had “steam rollered” the Senate vote, in hopes of winning women’s votes for their parties. That same edition reported that the state’s Republican U.S. Senators, most of whom had voted against the amendment in Congress, saying it did not represent the will of the people of West Virginia, demanded an investigation into charges their opposition actually was because they had received money from the liquor lobby.

The state’s women still didn’t get to vote in the primaries because state law had to be changed. With the Mountain State in the suffragists’ corner, the state of Washington was the next to ratify (North Carolina rejected), setting up the famous showdown in Tennessee where the 19th amendment passed on August 18 because a legislator who had opposed it changed his vote at his mother’s behest.

When word of the victory in Tennessee arrived, a suffragist in Fairmont, West Virginia, threw a celebration. That is a story of its own, which you can read at another of my blogs, West Virginia suffragists celebrate Tennessee’s ratification.

Image Credits:
Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt. Photographer unknown. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-109793

“All together now! Stop her!” Udo J. Keppler, artist. Published in Puck magazine May 2, 1914. Shows several diminutive figures, men and women, hanging onto the robe labeled “Woman Suffrage” and sandal of a gigantic woman who is striding forward; a placard lying on the ground states “Anti-Suffrage.” Library of Congress, LC-USZC2-1187

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