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(suffrage icon)1921

Carrie Chapman Catt

An important feature of our work each autumn was at state and county fairs, where from a booth or tent emanated suffrage speeches, literature, and friendly argument with the hundreds who drifted in and out. Regular press service was continued, the writer serving as press chairman and sending out at regular intervals a letter to all those newspapers in the state, about one hundred in number, who were sufficiently hospitable to our cause to warrant the expenditure for paper and stamps. Special suffrage editions of daily or weekly newspapers were occasionally issued, edited usually by members of our organization. Richland Democrat, Watertown Daily Times, the Milwaukee Leader, and the Madison Wisconsin State Journal were among newspapers which paid us this pleasant attention.

Mrs. B. C. Gudden, who has now passed from among us, assisted in the press work by sending suffrage letters to the German newspapers, and such was her ability and standing that she was able to secure their regular publication. Suffrage propaganda also appeared in at least one Polish paper. Our final victory was largely due, as most reforms are due, to the help of the newspapers. Especially to promote congressional work in this state, Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt came here in 1916 and was the chief speaker in a state-wide congressional conference held in Milwaukee. Wisconsin suffragists were proud that Mrs. Catt was born in Ripon, Wisconsin, although she removed with her family to Iowa when a young child.


Each session of Congress and of the state legislature, as it came on, was the object of our special solicitude. For a long time the Wisconsin delegation in Congress was not noticeable for suffrage enthusiasm. However, when the vote was taken in the House of Representatives in 1915, Wisconsin gave two votes in favor and nine votes against the federal amendment. By January, 1918 our delegation had taken an advanced stand and we had the remarkably favorable vote of eight for to two against the amendment, one place being vacant. That same vote was recorded at the final suffrage roll call in the House in May, 1919. In the long struggle in the United States Senate both of the Wisconsin senators stood steadily in favor of the amendment, as both had for years been friendly to our cause.

Each state legislature was given one chance and often several chances to record its opinion of the enfranchisement of women. The legislature of 1913 passed a referendum measure, which was vetoed by Governor McGovern on the ground that the electors should not be asked to pass upon the question again so soon after having decided against it.

The legislatures of 1915 and 1917 almost passed woman suffrage measures--almost but not quite. But the tide was turning. Political parties whose favor we had been fervently courting for years were becoming less embarrassed by our attentions. Minor parties had long been for us. The Prohibition Party, organized about 1880, seems to have favored equal rights for women from the beginning. The Socialist Party has stood for equal rights for women; and the Progressive Party during its brief existence took the same position.

The majority parties were bashful but not wholly unapproachable. In 1916 both the Republican and the Democratic parties endorsed the principles of woman suffrage but neither was quite ready to stand for the one thing necessary to bring suffrage to the women of the country, the federal amendment. The two major parties in Wisconsin that year followed the lead of the national parties, but two years later both had reached the stage of positive conviction. "There comes a time," said Mrs. McClung, the brilliant Canadian woman who spoke at one of our conventions, "there comes a time when the political parties, however shy they have been toward woman suffrage, say, "Take it from us, ladies." That time had come in Wisconsin when the platform conventions were held in September, 1918. All parties adopted suffrage planks. All leaders were anxious for us to know they were for us or at least were not against us. The woman suffrage session of the Wisconsin legislature naturally followed. The legislature was so keen about suffrage that it got ahead of our legislative committee and passed a resolution favoring the federal amendment and urging prompt action by the United States Senate before our committee got settled to its task.

Followed at intervals four more suffrage measures: giving women presidential suffrage; providing for a referendum; ratifying the federal amendment; repealing the referendum. The referendum was not desired by suffragists but went through on the prevailing enthusiasm of the legislature. When the federal amendment was ratified and the legislature realized that under the provisions of the referendum Wisconsin women might vote in November, 1920 on the question of their own enfranchisement, the referendum measure was repealed, a wholly friendly and considerate act. Each of the suffrage measures was favored by a large majority in both senate and assembly. The conversion of the political leaders of the state, as represented in the legislature as well as in Congress, was apparently complete. Legislation in this state had done all it could for the national enfranchisement of women.

Suffrage demonstration in front of the White House
March 1917

The Wisconsin legislature passed the resolution of ratification about eleven o'clock on the morning of June 10, 1919. Senator David G. James, special messenger to carry the ratification document to Washington, reported at the proper bureau in the office of the Secretary of State early on the morning of June 13, and secured from the chief of the bureau a definite declaration that the Wisconsin resolution was the first to be filed in that office.

David James in Civil War Band

June 13, 1919

By direction of the Acting Secretary of State I hereby acknowledge the receipt of the Joint Resolution of the Legislature of the State of Wisconsin, ratifying the proposed amendment to the Constitution of the United States extending the right of suffrage to women, which was delivered by special messenger, D. G. James, on June 13, 1919, and is the first ratification of the amendment which has been received.

Chief of Bureau

However, the Wisconsin claim to first place in ratification of the suffrage amendment is challenged by Illinois, whose legislature had passed a ratification resolution at ten o'clock on that fateful morning of June 10. It later transpired that there was an error in the text of the resolution passed by the Illinois legislature which necessitated its being passed over again a fortnight later. Illinois claims she is entitled to first place because the error was not her own. She makes no claim to having led first at Washington.

Whether the actual passage of the amendment, or the filing of that document at Washington, should establish precedence, whether the error should or should not count against Illinois--these are considerations which bid fair to make the question, "Is Wisconsin or Illinois entitled to first place in ratifying the suffrage amendment?" one of the great unsettled questions of the day. But there is no question that Wisconsin, either alone or with one companion, held the proud position of leader in that final great roll call of democracy.