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Today in Feminist History: Colby’s Symbolic Power of Secretary of State (August 22, 1920) Women

Today in feminist history is our daily recap of the key milestones and small advances that have shaped US women’s history – from the suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These contributions were written by and pay homage to our late historian and archivist David Dismore.


Aug 22, 1920: It has now been four days since Tennessee became the 36th and last state required to convert Susan B. Anthony’s amendment (Women’s Suffrage) into today’s 19th amendment, and which is electoral leaders so confident that the formal proclamation of ratification by US Secretary of State Colby will come shortly that few are left in Nashville.

Those who stay in the state capital are here to fight and quickly clear one final roadblock. Desperate anti-suffragists have resolved to stave off their defeat for as long as possible. It is an injunction allegedly preventing the governor of Tennessee from officially confirming that the electoral law change has been properly ratified by his state. This certificate must be given to Secretary Colby before he can officially declare that the Anthony Amendment is the 19th amendment to the US Constitution.

Since the Constitution does not require the Secretary of State to certify that an amendment has been properly ratified, only that it be approved by 2/3 of the US House and Senate, and 3/4 of the states, the secretary’s proclamation is somewhat symbolic . But the proclamation is a very powerful symbol and the traditional way of dispelling doubts as to whether the battle for change has been won because it will then have the full strength of the United States government to defend it.

Despite the injunction, other formalities went smoothly. The Tennessee House resolution to agree with the Senate approval to ratify has been returned to the Senate for deepening (printing a final copy of a bill or resolution after it is passed). This move puts it out of reach of the House so that it cannot reconsider or overturn its vote to ratify without the permission of the Senate. Since the Senate approved the ratification resolution with 25 to 4 nine days ago (with 4 others not voting), nobody has worried about it.

Governor Roberts said today the attorney general had assured him that Tennessee’s approval of the August 18 franchise change was perfectly legal. The governor was a strong supporter of the franchise and said today that he will not allow any action by the legislature against franchise to overturn his state’s successful ratification:

“I will exercise and exercise all legal and legitimate powers of the governorship to properly and legally complete the attestation of the legislature’s actions to competent federal officials.”

Numerous judicial authorities have stated that the governor will not be subject to the orders of the Davidson County Registrar’s Court, but the governor said that out of respect for the judicial system, he will wait for the injunction to be lifted, which is likely to happen either tomorrow or the next day, after it was challenged in court.

Opponents still make confident statements, although reality seems to be slowly creeping in as they now speak of delaying rather than defeating women’s suffrage. You sent this message to the governors of seven states yesterday and made your text available to the public today:

“No women will vote for at least a year and a half as Tennessee acts today as the restraining order is brought to the Supreme Court. Any civil servant attempting to certify will be attacked for disobeying the court, and Secretary Colby has already been warned that actions in violation of the order are invalid under our laws.

Secretary Colby is also bound by an amended bill from Charles S. Fairchild and the American Constitutional League in Washington. There is no need for a rush in other states due to the alleged Tennessee actions today, and press reports suggesting ratification is completely misleading. For this reason, we urge you to carefully review the ratification status before taking any action that could complicate the upcoming presidential elections and the election of governors, congressmen, lawmakers, etc. in many states. “

The Tennessee House against the Suffrage, who fled the state to prevent a quorum from being in attendance to remove the last parliamentary technique that might have blocked ratification, are still in Alabama. After their efforts have failed and the House has finalized the ratification resolution, the reason for their continued absence remains uncertain.

Some say the deserters want to “balance” with the electoral governor by preventing action against other laws he tries to enact. Their absence would successfully prevent action on these bills as they are state, not federal, affairs. For these, 66 out of 99 members of the House of Representatives must be present to vote. Thirty-seven members of the House of Representatives are in self-imposed exile in Alabama, three were absent due to illness throughout the session, so only fifty-nine members could respond “in attendance” if a quorum call was requested.

Others suspect that the “refugees” are simply enjoying the royal treatment they receive from die-hard anti-suffragists wherever they go in this neighboring state. If so, they’d better enjoy that attention and praise while they can, for the once powerful and well-funded anti-suffrage organizations like the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage and the Southern Women’s League appear to be opposed to the Susan B. Anthony Amendment to be about to join the Whigs and the Know Nothing Party and soon to become embarrassing footnotes in American history.


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