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How the Spanish Flu Almost Upended Women's Suffrage

Historians in the News
tags: voting rights, Spanish flu, womens history, Womens Suffrage, 19th Amendment



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Despite the splintered approach, momentum kept building. And in November 1917, New York became the 12th state to grant women the right to vote. Two months later, on Jan. 10, 1918, the House handily approved the amendment to the Constitution, by a vote of 274 to 136. And on Sept. 30, 1918, President Wilson threw his support behind the amendment and urged the Senate — then controlled by his Democratic Party — to approve it too.

“We have made partners of the women in this war,” he said in the Senate Chamber. “Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not a partnership of privilege?”

The day after Wilson’s resounding speech, the amendment was defeated in the Senate, falling just two votes short of the two-thirds majority.

It failed for two key reasons: Some senators weren’t comfortable with the idea of a federal mandate. Other senators, particularly southern Democrats, were opposed to the idea of the vote going to black women, explained Elaine Weiss, author of “The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote.”

“The southern senators were saying two things: If black women can vote, they’re going to vote for the party of Lincoln, which is Republican, and these are all Democratic Deep South states,” explained Weiss. “And there was the idea that if black women can vote, they might think they’re socially equal too and then the whole premise of white supremacy is eroded.”

In fact, the suffragists, recognizing this resistance, had minimized the role and visibility of black women in their national campaigns in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience.

A few days after the defeat in the Senate, the Spanish flu hit Washington, D.C., hard. Representative Claude Kitchin, a Democrat from North Carolina and the House majority leader, came down with the flu on Oct. 6. The House speaker, Champ Clark, also fell ill. On Oct. 7, Congress closed its public viewing galleries. Hundreds of deaths were reported in the capital every week. By mid-October, with most lawmakers either out sick or tending to the sick, almost all legislative action ground to a near halt, except for a few brief pro forma sessions.

On top of all this, the midterm elections in early November were approaching. But then, as now, political activities, like rallies and speeches, were suspended.

At this point, suffragists across the country, bruised by their defeat in Congress, were determined to oust the senators who voted against the amendment. They also needed to campaign in Oklahoma, Louisiana, South Dakota and Michigan, where state-level referendums on extending voting rights to women would be held.

But the epidemic left them “really hamstrung,” said Weiss.

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Read entire article at The New York Times

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