Is the Constitution finished? By “finished” I mean “complete,” not “ready for the trash heap” (though more than a few progressives seem to think of it that way). There hasn’t been a serious attempt at passing an amendment in over 40 years (excepting the anomalous 27th, proposed in 1789 and finally ratified in 1992), and none of the amendments that activists like to propose — balanced budget, Electoral College reform, reversing Citizens United, prohibiting abortion, reviving the 1970s Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), repealing the Second Amendment — have any plausible path to ratification. Nowadays when people propose a social reform or find a defect in the way our government is run, they look to the legislative process, federal bureaucrats, or a sympathetic judiciary to fix it.
Things looked a lot different in the summer of 1920. Over the previous decade, progressives of varying stripes had enacted amendments legalizing a national income tax, mandating direct election of senators, and banning alcoholic beverages, and the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, had been passed by Congress and sent to the states. Both major parties had endorsed it, and in the first year after passage, 35 of the requisite 36 states had approved the amendment, while twelve had rejected, tabled, or declined to consider it. In early August, Tennessee would be the last to take up the measure before the 1920 presidential election, in a special session called for the purpose.
To be sure, Tennessee was not the last hope for suffrage; states that had rejected or deferred the amendment could consider it again. Yet, as would be seen in the 1970s with Phyllis Schlafly’s successful goal-line stand against the ERA (which amendment was also endorsed by both parties), as ratification slows down, the opponents dig in and fight harder, so a loss in Tennessee could have dealt the amendment a serious blow — especially with most of the former Confederate states firmly against it. In the end, Tennessee did indeed ratify, but it didn’t come easily, and an engrossing new book by Elaine Weiss shows how close the state came to placing a possibly fatal roadblock in the way of women’s suffrage.
Very little of the underlying controversy, as opposed to the rhetoric, in Tennessee was about women’s fundamental rights. Instead, as ever, politicians based their votes on the interests of their most important backers. What remained of the liquor industry was against suffrage because it feared women would be more reluctant than men to repeal Prohibition. Manufacturers thought women would be more likely to support wage and industrial-safety legislation. And (it was widely assumed) the state’s biggest railroad was lobbying against the amendment in order to protect the reelection of a Connecticut senator who was pro-railroad but anti-suffrage.
But the biggest issue by far was race. Probably only a few legislators truly thought women were unqualified to participate in politics, but virtually everyone in the all-white legislature agreed on the need to suppress the African-American vote. The only point of dispute was whether ratification would help achieve this.
The question might seem an odd one, even in areas of the state, such as Nashville, where blacks could vote without harassment. In 1920 Tennessee was about 19 percent black, so giving women the franchise would add many more white voters to the rolls than black ones. The anti-suffragists’ racial fears seem to have been based on the belief that blacks were bloc voters, while whites often splintered their votes among many candidates; that white women’s inherent delicacy would make them recoil from involvement in politics, whereas black women would be less fastidious; and that self-respecting white women would refuse to go to a polling place where black women were treated on terms of equality.
In areas where blacks were prevented from exercising their franchise, whites feared that increasing the number of potential voters whose rights were being suppressed would increase the outside pressure for reform, and perhaps that using violence against women would-be voters would be more unseemly than using it against men. Superimposed on all of this was a strong antipathy to letting the federal government dictate states’ voting laws in any way. Tennessee’s considerable unreconstructed element still bitterly remembered how the state’s legislature had been made to approve the 14th and 15th Amendments in order to be readmitted to the Union, and they were determined not to be railroaded again.
In The Woman’s Hour, Elaine Weiss does a fine job of explaining these intricacies and conveying how nerve-rackingly tight the ratification vote was. She sets the anti-suffrage movement in the context of its time, resisting the temptation to cheerlead or snicker; she explains the various legal and parliamentary maneuvers without getting bogged down in minutiae; and she expertly narrates the mounting drama as the final vote approaches. There’s plenty of detail, including the copious over-the-top rhetoric that the fight inspired. (Then as now, the Russkies made a convenient villain: “If the present legislature ratifies, it will be due to the Bolshevik and socialist influences at work on them.”)
Weiss’s running theme of brass-knuckles pressure politics might seem incongruous with something as important as the right to vote. Can a correct decision emerge from such a heap of short-sightedness and parochialism? Yes, and the Founders knew it. That’s why they made sure that the most important issues of enduring concern would be debated not just by the two houses of Congress, but over and over again in the states. When all the competing factional interests canceled each other out, what was left would be the will of the people.
Which again raises the question: Whatever happened to constitutional amendments? After outbreaks at roughly half-century intervals beginning with the Civil War, we’re due for another spasm now, but no amendment looks even remotely likely. There are really two Constitutions, one for the machinery of government and one for the rights of the people, and neither one seems deficient enough nowadays to inspire a serious effort to revise it. All the amendments that followed women’s suffrage, excepting repeal of Prohibition, have been important but narrow tweaks of the machinery (lame-duck amendment, presidential term limits, D.C. voting, poll-tax ban, presidential succession, 18-year-old vote), and at this point the process of governing is running pretty smoothly, however dire the results.
As for civil rights, excepting the poll-tax amendment, all the big changes that took place in the 1950s and 1960s were accomplished with laws and courts and regulations and protests. In the 1970s, we got Title IX instead of the ERA. Additionally, or perhaps consequently, the idea of separate spheres for state and federal government has been eroded, as Congress and federal courts and bureaucrats grow even less shy about taking matters into their own hands. Constitutional amendments went out of fashion along with folk music, bell bottoms, and liberal Republicans because, on the remaining fundamental issues, the nation has become too divided. It’s a lot easier to win over five justices than 38 states.
The things that set a constitutional amendment apart from other ways of settling an issue are permanence, openness, deliberation, and consensus. That’s why we respect them enough to avoid overusing them. And whether or not women’s suffrage was the last truly major amendment, The Woman’s Hour is a worthy account of how a dedicated band of women, after three-quarters of a century of effort, finally managed to bring it across the finish line.