America’s Most Important Congress? Number 66.

March 4th 1919- March 3rd 1920

“Wish me luck, as you wave me goodbye. Cheerio, here I go, on my way. Wish me luck, as you wave me goodbye. With a cheer, not a tear, make it gay…”

The end of the First World War has finally been declared. The summer of 1919 brings the Paris Peace Conference and an agreement to the Treaty of Versailles. With the doctrine of world peace seen as a viable opportunity, the proposal of a League of Nations has gained international attention, sending President Woodrow Wilson on a cross-country campaign to see to its creation. The campaign however, has a new target: women and if one believed congressional consensus was rare before the other half of the population was included, the 66th Congress of the United States could be juxtaposed as miracle workers..

The 66th Congress is the stage upon which all of these historical happenings occurred. With actors like Thomas Riley Marshall, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jeannette Rankin, and the later Alice Robertson, a political play opened to America’s audience—selling out on three main events: the ratification of the nineteenth amendment, prohibition, and the Merchant Marine Act. Between March 4th, 1919 and March 3rd, 1921, the 66th Congress of the United States played a dominant and active role in American politics, while unknowingly establishing the outcome of the nation we see today.

Riding off the tail end of the Progressive Era, the 66th Congress was prescribed with the tasks nursing the Prohibition and Suffrage movements. During their first of three Congressional sessions, Congress passed the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote, as well as the National Prohibition Act (“Teaching”), which established Prohibition.

The biggest challenge the President faced in unifying Congres came from his proposal of the Treaty of Versailles, which he sent to the Senate July 10th, 1919. Henry Cabot Lodge (Rep. Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Majority Leader, was heavily involved with the dismissal of the treaty; lodge felt that declaration of war was and should be under congressional control, and with the split factions of the Democratic Party, he was able to secure the majority necessary to defeat the treaty (Christianson).

Though Lodge offered a compromising proposal, Wilson made no such concessions and retreated to galvanize campaign for American public opinion approval; thus began his cross-country speaking tour to rally public support for the treaty.

However, the campaign was cut dramatically short when Wilson suffered a heart attack three weeks into the tour, leaving him incapacitated until early November 1919. The treaty was swiftly rejected by the Senate later that month and again in March 1920 (Christianson). As the 66th Congress progressed however, 28 other bills would be vetoed by Wilson, one of which included the Volstead Act.

With a consistent pattern of nomination, confirmation, and bill passage, which broadly characterizes the life of this Congress, it may first appear to be a nonchalant, quote ‘normal’ Congress. Yet where this Congress sits historically makes it of grave significance to the progress of the nation—namely for the advancement of women.

Within this Congress, not only were there substantial acts and bills proposed, but there was also was the first nominated female representative. With the ratification of the 19th amendment, Congress forever changed the structure, development, and magnitude of American politics.

Pioneer women had been fighting for women’s suffrage long before Jeannette Rankin entered the Congressional realm in 1916. Evolving from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 where Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted a, “Declaration of Sentiments, Grievances, and Resolutions” (a document that shadowed the Declaration of Independence), and all the way up to the ratification of the 19th amendment, women’s suffrage was finally solidified in 1920 (20 Ehlers).

As the trunk of the women’s movement, the Seneca Falls Convention in July 1848 spurred many initial branches of the women’s movements including the elimination of social and institutional barriers, stereotypical family responsibilities, lack of educational and economical opportunities, as well as the exposure of women’s once politically hushed voices.

However, it was not until the wake of the Civil War when reformers would decide upon a clear, specific, less marginalized, “social issue” centered on voting rights that the movement would truly gain steam. It is here where the quest for a women’s right to vote commences and it is the 66th Congress whom ties the bow upon this mile marker in history (21 Ehlers).

The first initial step towards this defined goal was taken by Stanton and a woman named Susan B. Anthony, whom Stanton forged a lifetime alliance with as fellow women’s rights activists. The two created the National Women Suffrage Association (NWSA), which laid a platform devoted to changing federal law and opposing the 15th amendment, which excluded the recognition of a women’s right to vote.

While initially focusing on federal institutions for their sought after change, the group gradually adopted more state centered tactics including the hope for a gradual “ripple effect” that would ultimately influence voting rights on the federal level (21 Ehlers). However, some women such as future House Representative, Alice Robertson, condemned these women for acting inappropriately and incorrectly, stating women “have gone into politics the wrong way, beginning at the top. When a women shows she is fitted for office, she will receive the call to office just as a man does (22 Ehlers).”

Initially, much hype was given to the NWSA and even a few other women’s groups, including the American Women Suffrage Association (AWSA), but time would reveal serious hurdles for these active groups, most of which, ironically, stemmed from within the female community. Ida H. Harper and Anthony co-wrote, “In the indifference, the inertia, the apathy of women, lies the greatest obstacle to their (NWSA) enfranchisement.”

Though the groups were ultimately focused upon women’s suffrage, it could be said that their initial calling was to first educate women and instill the sense of importance and responsibility they lacked. A “crusade in search of a constituency (21 Ehlers)” wrote Stanton, the battle of indifference raged within the confines of the women’s movement.

A turning point of the women’s movement was on the horizon however. A surge of volunteers—mainly middle-class women—hit the states and promoted everything from progressive causes like prohibition and suffrage, to women’s clubs membership and activism among professional societies, to general participants in local civic organizations.

The new momentum spurred the joint of the NWSA and AWSA into one united organization, forming the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890. By this time, finding a constituency was no longer the issue; finding a multitude of state to adopt their platform was.

In 1869, Wyoming was the first state to grant women complete voting rights. As is evident by the date, this preceded the formation of the NAWSA, but this state was alone in its hopes for quite some time. However, following suit after the founding of the NAWSA in 1890, three western states, Colorado in 1893, Utah in 1896 and Idaho too later that year, all granted voting rights to women (22 Ehlers).

Again, initial hype was given to the movement i.e. Wyoming’s premature declaration, but it would not be until 1910, after intensified lobbying efforts by the NAWSA, when the ‘ripple effect’ would truly begin to take effect.

In 1913, Alice Paul, a young Quaker activist, formed the Congressional Union (future National Women’s Party) and adopted more “militant tactics” of earning support for the women’s movement. Picketing, rallying, marching, posters etc. were conducted to raise public awareness, which attracted the support of younger generations of women.

Though different from the actions led by the NAWSA, the dissimilar angle of campaigning proved to revitalize the movement and in turn, heavily contributed to the conversion of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. This rising generation of active women soon became seen as a rising generation of active voters, and with a split division within his own party, this sitting duck opportunity showed every potential for the uniformity and support Wilson so much desired.

In 1915, Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the NAWSA, implemented her “Winning Plan” strategy, which called for the dedication of the women’s movement solely to achieve state referenda on the vote— specifically on non-Western states. Two years later, the strategy proved successful! Arkansas and New York adopted partial (and later full) voting privileges in 1917 for women and from that point on, the floodgates for a national women’s right to vote were opened. Trickling down state by state, the dam was about to burst; enter 66th Congress.

If the crown jewels of 1917 were Arkansas’s and New York’s conversion, Montana’s Jeannette Rankin election to Congress that same year was the golden scepter. As the first women and first suffragists elected to Congress, Rankin stated, “I may be the first, but I will not be the last (37).”

Born in Missoula, Montana to a schoolteacher and a rancher, Rankin attended Montana State University (now University of Montana) and also graduated from New York School of Philanthropy (now Columbia University School of Social Work). Rankin moved back west and attended the University of Washington where she joined the women’s suffrage movement. It is here where Rankin became a professional lobbyist for the NAWSA and began her journey to Congress.

Rankin ran as a Progressive Party member for one of the two Montana House seats, focusing her platform upon women’s suffrage as well as social welfare issues. Much to the objection from the NAWSA, Rankin also presented a platform promoting pacifism—a position the organization did not support because it opposed the sentiments of their latest and greatest suffrage advocate, President Wilson.

In 1917, Rankin was called to an extraordinary April session of Congress after Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare. With her strong pacifists views, the NAWSA requested Rankin to caution her vote against the war, fearing it would tarnish the entire movement and perhaps negate the support of the President. However, Rankin till chose to vote against the war, “I want to stand by my county, but I cannot vote for war (38 Ehlers)”.

During the fall of 1917, Rankin called for the creation of a congressional Committee on Women Suffrage, which Rankin was appointed to after its creation later that year. Rankin did not run for reelection the following year but did run for her representative seat again as the crisis of war began to cloud the county in 1940. By this time however, much had changed for the women’s movement and as Rankin remarked, “No one will pay any attention to me this time. There is nothing unusual about a woman being elected (39 Ehlers).”

Still an avid pacifists, Rankin focused more upon the threat of war and less upon the changing women’s movement her second time around. Again voting ‘no’ to war, Rankin declared, “As a women, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else.” The war resolution passed the House 388-1 (40 Ehlers). Rankin’s 90th birthday was in 1970 but at the time of her death May 18th, 1973, she was considering running for her old House seat in protest of the Vietnam War (40 Ehlers).

                 Serious ground was gained for the women’s movement January 10th of 1918 when the House of Representatives passed a voting rights amendment, though it was never endorsed by the 65th Congress. Yet only a year’s time would pass before another bill would sweep both the House and Senate. Passed by Congress June 14th, 1919, the 19th U.S. Amendment read, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on the account of sex (19th Amendment).”

August 26th, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to approve this amendment to the U.S. Constitution and with that, the once stumped, single trunked, known as the ‘women’s movement,’ had now come full circle and created a forest of national and congressional change (Christianson).

Some other early influential Congressional women included Rebecca Felton of Georgia, whom was the first women to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1922, as well as Alice Robertson of Oklahoma, who was the first women to preside of the House of Representatives that same year.

Though she was elected to the 67th Congress, Robertson was exceedingly different than Rankin in terms of female political development. De-emphasizing a lot of Rankin’s strides, Robertson did not negate the women’s movement, but she did repave and reroute the road Rankin had created.

Robertson was born in the Tullahassee Mission in the Creek Indian Territory and in turn served on the Committee on Indian Affairs during her term as a Representative in Congress (42 Ehlers). However, her work proved frustrating and nonproductive; Robertson claimed the committee to be lackadaisical in action and nonresponsive to Indian concern.

Robertson was also assigned to the Committee on Women Suffrage, which insulted many reformers due to her lukewarm support for the 19th amendment in 1920. Robertson was a well-known critic of various women’s groups, “or any other organization that will be used as a club against men (44 Ehlers),” remarked Robertson.

Encouraging virtues but condemning many suffragists for their solitary expression of fault, Robertson envisioned a traditional rise of female politicians. Robertson was interviewed by the Washington Post March 4, 1923 and stated women, “have gone into politics the wrong way, beginning at the top. When a women shows she is fitted for office, she will receive the call to office just as a man does (44 Ehlers).”

With her steadfast grit to shun feminists’ overtures, Robertson gained the respect of her male colleagues. This was a political position Rankin never claimed. “I came to Congress to represent my district, not women (46 Ehlers).”

Though Robertson was not reelected in 1922, she represented a different, but vital angle to Women’s Suffrage Movement—one that took on a varying shadow of movement following Rankin’s time in the 66th Congress.

For what it is worth, I find Robertson’s stance on the women’s movement most fascinating of all the women I have come to study and I commend her liberation of speech and authentic character. Robertson changed the traditional idea of women’s leadership to an idea of leadership by women and for this development, the women’s suffrage movement was supplemented into the pages of American history.

As for the literal make-up of the 66th Congress, lawyers, iron molders, stock raisers, a tree surgeon, two cheese manufacturers, and a glass blower—the professional backgrounds of those within the 66th Congress was vastly diverse. Though no head-on drama occurred while Congress was in session, the House did refuse to seat one of its representative-elects. Victor Berger of Wisconsin was ordered by Speaker of the House, Frederick Gillett not to take the oath of office due to charges against Berger for espionage. His seat remained open throughout the entirety of the Congress (Office of the Clerk).

A congress characterized by a three-way divided partisanship, a female representative, booby-trapped letters of the red scare, and the one and only National College Football Championship won by Harvard in 1919—the 66th Congress of the United States beheld a significant portion of U.S. history.

Heading off the heels of war and into a time of transition, the 66th Congress will forever remain a vital group of folks. As they exited stage right they all began to sing, “Give me a smile, I can keep for a while, In my heart while I’m away. Till we meet once again You and I wish me luck as you wave me goodbye.”

Enter 67th Congress.

Bibliography

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