19th Amendment’s Botched Signing Ceremony Angers Women
With a stroke of his pen the morning of Aug. 26, 1920, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, granting women the right to vote. The necessary three-quarters approval from all the states was achieved when Tennessee barely ratified the proposed amendment on August 18—by a margin of a single vote. It only remained for Tennessee’s action to be officially presented to Colby, who was ready to issue his certification proclamation announcing that women suffrage was now the law of the land.
Unfortunately, what should have been a grand celebration for women activists was tarnished in the end by a very curious decision Colby made about signing his proclamation.
Women, in groups and as individuals, worked for more than 70 years to achieve women suffrage. One of the leading groups was the National Woman’s Party (NWP), founded in 1916. The NWP had broken away from the National American Woman Suffrage Association because the latter group favored a strategy of lobbying individual states to change their laws prohibiting women from voting. The NWP insisted it would take a constitutional amendment to fully guarantee women the right to vote, and worked long and hard toward this goal. Accordingly, a delegation from the NWP, including its leader Alice Paul, gathered in Secretary Colby’s office and stayed late the night of August 25 hoping to celebrate the historic moment when he signed his certification proclamation.
The group’s high spirits were dampened when a message arrived saying the train from Tennessee carrying the official papers was delayed. Colby dismissed the women and went home, saying the signing ceremony would have to wait until tomorrow. Then, before leaving for work the next day, Colby quietly signed the proclamation in his home office at 8:00 in the morning. When the NWP women arrived at the State Department to witness and celebrate the signing ceremony, they were dismayed to learn he had already signed the proclamation; they left the building and refused his invitation to come back and listen to a speech he had prepared for the occasion.
Colby then invited the NWP’s rival group, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, to have the honor of listening to his speech. That group’s leader, Carrie Chapman Catt, was only too happy to accept. In his remarks Colby alluded to the NWP’s leaving in a huff, saying that participation in a signing ceremony “has, regretfully, been the source of considerable contention as to who shall participate in it and who shall not.” Nonetheless, the deed was done: the 19th Amendment was ratified, the certification proclamation issued, and women suffrage was now the law.
This article was published by the Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri) on the front page of its Aug. 26, 1920, issue:
Suffrage Is a Law
Ratification of the 19th Amendment Was Proclaimed Early Today by Secretary Colby
Signed It at His Home
As Soon as Tennessee’s Notice Was Received, the Proclamation Was Signed
Crowd of Women Assembled at the State Department Cheered the Announcement
Late Train Held It Up
Plans Had Been Made to Issue the Document Shortly after Midnight
Washington, Aug. 26.—The right of women to the ballot was officially made a part of the Constitution of the United States today when Secretary of State Colby proclaimed ratification of the nineteenth amendment.
The proclamation announcing officially that the suffrage amendment had been ratified was signed at 8 o’clock this morning at Mr. Colby’s home when the certificate from Governor Roberts that the Tennessee Legislature had ratified the amendment was received. Secretary Colby announced his action on his arrival at his office later.
Suffrage Leaders Cheered
A group of suffrage leaders who had waited until a late hour last night for the arrival of the Tennessee certification were hurriedly summoned to the State Department and met Colby. They cheered when told the last step to make the amendment operative had been taken.
Among them were Alice Paul, chairman of the National Woman’s Party; Abby Scott Baker, Miss Julia Emory, Baltimore; Dr. Lydia Allen Devilbiss of Georgia; Miss Mary Moore Forrest, Scituate, Mass.; Mrs. Anne Calvert Neely, Vicksburg, Miss.; Mrs. B. C. Kalb, Houston, Tex.; Mrs. Cyrus Mead, Dayton, O.; Miss Emilie Grace Kay, St. Paul, Minn.; and Miss Emma Wold, Portland, Ore.
Late Train Delayed Action
Plans for issuing the proclamation shortly after midnight this morning were frustrated when the train bearing the ratification credentials from Tennessee was reported an hour late.
Secretary Colby had prepared to receive the credentials as soon as the registered mail package could be delivered from the post office, where it was due at 11:30 o’clock. But when the train was reported late the secretary retired and disappointed a large gathering of suffrage champions who had assembled at the State Department for the final ceremony.
Believes Fight Is Ended
Miss Paul in a statement said:
“We are confident that the signature of Secretary Colby completes the suffrage struggle in this country,” she said. “In spite of every obstacle that our opponents could put in our way, women have won the right to an equal voice in the affairs of this government. The Woman’s Party will not relax its vigilance, however, until it is satisfied that no further attempts will be made to wrest from the women of the United States the political equality which they have won.”
Miss Paul planned to go today to New York to call a meeting of the executive committee of the party at which the date for the national convention to fix future policy will be decided.
Women Were Disappointed
The women gave evidence of keen disappointment in not having had an opportunity to make something of a ceremony out of the signing of the proclamation and went back to headquarters planning an independent jubilation. When he learned of their plans, Secretary Colby invited them to return.
Secretary Colby had prepared a statement regarding ratification of the suffrage amendment which he planned to read to the officials of the National Women’s Party had they accepted the invitation.
When the secretary’s invitation to return to his office was declined, another party of suffrage leaders appeared at the department. They were officials and members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, headed by Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt, who is on her way to New York from Nashville. The invitation to hear Mr. Colby’s statement was promptly accepted by this group and they filed into his office for the purpose.
Dodged a Suffrage Row
Secretary Colby’s statement after reciting his official action said:
“It was decided not to accompany the simple ministerial action on my part with any ceremony of setting. This secondary aspect of the subject has, regretfully, been the source of considerable contention as to who shall participate in it and who shall not. Inasmuch as I am not interested in the aftermath of any of the frictions or collisions which may have been developed in the long struggle for the ratification of the amendment, I contented myself with the performance in the simplest manner of the duties developed upon me under the law.
“I congratulate the women of the country upon the successful culmination of their efforts, which have been sustained in the face of many discouragements and which have now conducted them to the achievement of that great object.
“The day marks the day of the opening of a great and new era in the political life of the nation. I confidently believe that every salutary, forward and upward force in our public life will receive fresh vigor and reinforcement from the enfranchisement of the women of the country.”
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