One hundred years ago, women got the vote

Editor’s note: The commentary below was a speech given by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, on June 4, 2019, as a salute to women’s suffrage. The speech can be viewed at https://youtu.be/hqI8JyMCYLw.

I come to the floor today, on June the Fourth, to take a look back at a historic vote of the United States Senate.

This vote changed the course of history in America.

It strengthened the social fabric and constitutional framework of our republic.

One hundred years ago today, lawmakers in this body cast a vote for liberty and equality under the law.

The U.S. Senate approved federal suffrage legislation.

At the time, it was known as the Susan B. Anthony amendment.

Today, it’s better known as the Nineteenth Amendment.

Section One of the 19th amendment reads, “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 account of sex.”

By adopting the measure, the 66th U.S. Congress paved the way for women’s suffrage from sea to shining sea.

At the time, more than a dozen states and territories allowed full suffrage, led by the Western states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Idaho.

In 1919, both chambers of Congress were led by a Republican majority.

The House of Representatives adopted the amendment 304 to 89 on May 21.

Two weeks later, the Republican Senate voted 56 to 25 in favor.

That was two votes more than the necessary two-thirds vote required.

Both U.S. Senators from Iowa voted for passage. Senator William Kenyon, then the junior senator from Iowa, later went on to serve as a Federal Judge for the Eighth Circuit.

The other “aye” vote from Iowa was cast by my predecessor.

By that I mean, he was the only other senator from Iowa to serve as Senate president pro tem, Senator Albert Baird Cummins.

To a full gallery, packed with suffragists, Senator Cummins announced final passage of the Suffrage Amendment.

It was reported on June 5th in The New York Times, that Senator Cummins allowed the visitors gallery to celebrate with, “deafening applause” and he made no effort to stop the celebration.

As President pro tem, Senator Cummins was present at the enrollment ceremony, watching over the shoulder of Vice President Thomas Marshall who signed the historic bill.

From there it was sent to the states for ratification.

In a special session of the Iowa General Assembly, Iowa became the tenth state to ratify the 19th amendment, on July 2, 1919.

Suffragists and supporters continued the campaign they started in the Hawkeye State prior to World War I.

They mobilized support among farmers to pave the way to the ballot box for women.

The future Secretary of Agriculture under President Harding championed women’s right to vote in his widely-circulated farm journal.

Henry C. Wallace, of Des Moines, wrote, “I do not know how we can have a government of the people, for the people and by the people, until women have an equal voice with men. They are fully as competent as men to use that ballot wisely.”

Others invoked the patriotism, service and sacrifice of women during World War I.

Another compelling argument reminded Americans that without the ballot, women suffered taxation without representation.

All Americans will recall that battle cry also paved America’s road to independence.

Two days after Iowa ratified the 19th amendment, Americans celebrated our nation’s 143rd Year of Independence on the Fourth of July.

One hundred years later, we are one month away from celebrating our nation’s 243rd Year of Independence.

What a difference a century makes.

The historic passage of the Nineteenth Amendment pulled back the curtain to the voting booth and cracked open the glass ceiling for women to serve in public office.

Today, one-fourth of the U.S. Senate is women, including my colleague from Iowa, Senator Joni Ernst.

She is also the first female combat veteran elected to serve in the U.S. Senate.

In the 116th Congress, 102 women are serving in the House of Representatives, including two from Iowa, Representatives Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne.

In the last election, Iowans elected our first female governor, Kim Reynolds, one of nine women now serving as chief executive of their state.

Today I pay tribute to all those who blazed the trail to the ballot box and helped secure women’s right to vote.

At long last, the sacred right of franchise became a reality for all Americans.

It had been sought by women since the American Revolution.

Through the decades, it gained momentum through relentless advocacy at the grassroots.

A lot of credit is due to organizers at the Seneca Falls Convention in New York.

In the summer of 1848, they lit a flame that became inextinguishable.

They launched a civic movement for the ages with enough oxygen to become a grassroots prairie fire.

For more than a half-century, they organized with petitions, parades and protests to build momentum and constituencies at the state and federal level.

These early suffragists succeeded in laying a cornerstone of equality for generations to come.

One of the most fundamental rights of self-government is the right to vote.

And ratification of the 19th amendment enshrined this sacred civic duty into our founding charter of freedom.

I often say the ballot box holds elected members of Congress to account for the decisions we make on behalf of those we represent.

Our institutions of government, civic organizations, system of free enterprise, places of work, schools, communities and families are stronger thanks to the suffragists of history.

The road to ratification came down to a tie-breaking vote in Nashville, Tennessee.

A young member of the state legislature broke a deadlocked vote that otherwise would have tabled the measure.

His name was Harry Burn, a 24-year-old Republican from East Tennessee.

The morning of the vote, he received a note from his mother.

She invoked the name of a famous suffragist with long ties to my home state of Iowa, Carrie Chapman Catt. Her historic home you visit near Charles City, Iowa.

Mrs. Burn implored her son to, “be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”

Representative Burn credited his tie-breaking vote to the influence of his mother, to justice and for the legacy of the Republican Party.

In a statement explaining his vote, Representative Burn wrote, “I appreciated the fact that an opportunity such as seldom comes to a mortal man to free seventeen million women from political slavery was mine; I desired that my party in both State and nation might say it was a republican from the East mountains of Tennessee, who made national woman suffrage possible.”

On August 18th, 1920, the Volunteer State became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, securing the three-fourths of the states required.

When the U.S. Secretary of State certified the results eight days later, the 19th Amendment became the law of the land.

It ensured men and women in America would share equal rights to this fundamental civic right.

Like Harry Burn, my mother influenced my interest in government.

As long as I can remember, she sowed the seeds of my quest for public office and commitment to public service.

For years, she taught students in a one-room school house about the Three R’s — reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as lifelong lessons of civic responsibility.

At home, she taught the Grassley kids around the kitchen table to stand up for our beliefs.

To choose right over wrong.

To waste not, want not.

And, to value hard work and the value of hard-earned money.

She practiced what she preached, putting honesty and integrity, first and foremost.

This photo I have beside me today was published in the Des Moines Register on August 30, 1920.

It sets the scene of an historic day near my family farm.

A local woman named Mrs. Jens G. Theusen, of Fairfield Township, located in Grundy County, submitted her ballot in a country school.

She was one of the first women to vote after the newly ratified nineteenth amendment.

My own mother, Ruth Corwin Grassley, is pictured here alongside Mrs. Theusen.

She also cast a history-making vote that day in a local school election.

The Waterloo Times Tribune was present and reported, “Black Hawk and Grundy County women gained fame Friday by being the first in the state and probably the first in the nation to take advantage of the privilege of equal suffrage.”

I’ve since learned this photo was widely distributed in newspapers across the country, illustrating the historic victory of women’s suffrage.

This election in Iowa was held just 29 hours after the official announcement of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Although this photo of my mother immortalized her vote for posterity, she did so without fanfare.

She never bragged about anything, including her history-making vote in this local election.

In fact, it wasn’t until after she passed away that I learned my mother, Ruth Grassley, was one of the very first women in Iowa to cast her vote.

While I was growing up, I didn’t realize what a trailblazer she was.

Many suffragists wore their mission as a badge of honor for all to see.

Others, like my mother, were equally as proud to carry out their newfound right and civic duty with anonymity.

I’m not surprised I never knew this story about my mother.

She cast her vote to make her voice count, perhaps not even realizing she was making history at that moment.

Today, at this moment, I stand here as an Iowa farm boy, a proud son of a suffragist and a U.S. Senator from Iowa to share her story on the centennial anniversary marking Senate passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

As Americans we celebrate the founding fathers who enshrined the principles of limited government, free enterprise and personal responsibility in our Constitution.

Let us also pay tribute to our founding mothers who fought and secured these cherished blessings of freedom and liberty for their daughters and granddaughters yet to come in the same document.

Today, let us remember their legacy.

A century after the Senate voted in favor of the Nineteenth Amendment, I encourage all Americans to treasure their right to vote.

The suffragists of yesterday helped shape the course of history to ensure all Americans today and in the future will carry the torch for freedom, liberty, justice and opportunity for all, for generations to come.

COMMENTS