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West Virginia’s Role In The 19th Amendment

One-hundred years ago today, the 19th Amendment was officially added to the United States Constitution.  The decades-long fight by women to achieve the right to vote was finally codified.

West Virginia was among the 36 states to ratify the amendment, providing the approval of three-fourths of the states necessary to change the Constitution.

According to the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History, the first women’s suffrage resolution was introduced in the State Legislature in 1895, but it went nowhere.

Two decades later, the issue was put up for a statewide vote.  It failed by a two to one margin in a 1916 election.

By then, the national suffrage movement had settled on a strategy of amending the U.S. Constitution.  The West Virginia Equal Suffrage Association and the National Women’s Party lobbied legislators on behalf of the cause. Marion County native Lenna Lowe Yost was one of the primary leaders of the drive, and she was careful to keep it non-partisan.

“We are making a straight-out fight for ratification and for nothing else,” she was quoted in the Charleston Gazette, March 1, 1920.

Governor John Cornwell agreed to call a special session of the Legislature to consider the amendment.  He wanted West Virginia to be among the states backing women’s suffrage, rather that leaving women “humiliated at the thought of suffrage being extended to them by men of other states.”

The amendment had plenty of opposition.  Many said in floor speeches they were simply reflecting the views of their constituents who just a few years earlier had voted overwhelmingly against the it.

Some of the opponents were more direct. Senator J.W. Luther of McDowell County said Colorado, which had approved women’s suffrage, served as a warning. He said giving women the right to vote there caused an increase in the number of divorces and “the lewdness of the female participants in the matrimonial venture” was the primary cause.

But the women’s organizations and their supporters had worked hard to get the necessary votes.

On March 3, the House of Delegates voted 47-40 in favor of the amendment, but there was an issue in the Senate. The body deadlocked at 14-14.  However, Senator Harvey Harmer switched his “yes” vote to “no,” a parliamentary maneuver that allowed for reconsideration.

Harmer and his colleagues had a plan. If they could get Senator Jesse Bloch to the Capitol, they could take another vote.  Bloch was away from West Virginia at the time… far away in California.

Suffrage supporters in the Senate kept the body gaveled into session until Bloch could make his way home.  According to the West Virginia Archives and History, “It took Senator Bloch five days to reach Charleston, with news reporting his passage… en route to the State Capitol.”

On March 10, 1920, the Senate finally approved the amendment 15-14, making West Virginia the 34th state to support changing the Constitution to give women the right to vote.  National suffrage leader Carrie Catt sent a congratulatory telegram to Lenna Yost.

“The people who have followed the course of women’s suffrage from outside with indifference or small understanding of what has been at stake will have no comprehension of the real message which the West Virginia victory carries to women. To us it means that the nation is won,” she said.

West Virginia was followed by Washington on March 22 and Tennessee on August 18, the 36th state to ratify the Susan B. Anthony Amendment making women’s suffrage legal in the United States.

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