Guest Columnist

A century of suffrage, barriers and progress in Iowa

In 1938, the Floyd County Federation of Women's Clubs placed a rock and plaque to commemorate the Carrie Chapman Catt Girlhood Home near Charles City, Iowa, on Thursday, August 6, 2015. Chapman Catt played a leading role in the women's suffrage movement. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
In 1938, the Floyd County Federation of Women's Clubs placed a rock and plaque to commemorate the Carrie Chapman Catt Girlhood Home near Charles City, Iowa, on Thursday, August 6, 2015. Chapman Catt played a leading role in the women's suffrage movement. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

What a difference a century makes. May 21 marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S. House of Representatives passing the Women’s Suffrage Amendment bill, leading the way for the Senate to affirm it and forward the proposition to the states for adoption as the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. When written, Article I Section IV of our nation’s founding document left “time, place, and manner” of holding elections to the states. In accordance with their respective Constitutions, only white men who owned property were allowed to cast a ballot.

Iowa’s own constitution, as approved in 1857, stated that every white male citizen of the United States at least 21 years of age shall be entitled to vote. It further went on to state in Section III Article IV that in order to be elected to the State General Assembly, candidates must be a “free white male” at least 21 years of age.

The U.S. Constitution provided no specific oversight of individual state restrictions, except to add that “Congress may make law altering such (state) regulations.” As such, within the Hawkeye State, minorities, male or female, could not vote nor hold office until the 15th Amendment in 1868 banned the abridgment of voting based on “race, color, or servitude.”

Women, regardless of ethnicity, still could not legally vote or hold state office. Carrie Chapman Catt, of Charles City, Iowa, was named President of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, and became a pivotal force in the movement to secure equal voting rights for all races and genders. She organized marches and protests as early as the 1880s, then as president of the suffrage association, appealed to Edith Wilson, wife of President Woodrow Wilson, who, in 1918, publicly changed his position on suffrage and supported the right of women to vote.

With his endorsement, Congress took up the legislation, which it had previously defeated, and passed it successfully 304-89 in the House on May 21, 1919 and 56-25 in the Senate on June 4. As a prospective amendment to the Constitution, it would be submitted to the public where three quarters of the state legislatures would have to vote in favor of it before being added to the founding document.

Iowa was the tenth state to affirm the proposition, which the General Assembly did on July 2, 1919. Twenty six more states followed suit, with Tennessee the 36th state to consider it, casting the deciding ballot (the roll call came down to one legislator, a 24-year-old member of the General Assembly, who said his mother told him to “be a good boy” and vote for the measure).

The 19th Amendment was officially added to the Constitution on August 26, 1920. Women, however, remained subject to state laws regarding the right to hold public office, and Iowa continued to ban female candidates from running for the General Assembly until Section IV Article III of the State Constitution was amended, striking the word “male” form the text.

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Carolyn Pendray, of Maquoketa, was the first woman elected to the State House of Representatives in Iowa in 1928. She went on to become the first woman to serve in the state Senate as well, with her election there in 1932.

Eighty-two years later, in 2014, Joni Ernst was elected the first female to represent Iowa as a U.S. senator, then three years after this hallmark, Kim Reynolds was sworn in as the state’s first female governor, followed in 2018 by the election of Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne as the first of their gender from Iowa in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Today, 35 percent of the Iowa House of Representatives is composed of women and nearly 25 percent of the Senate, adding up to an average of 30 percent in the General Assembly. Nationally, of the 16 women who ran for state governorships in 2018, two-thirds won their seat. There are 131 women in Congress (Senate, House and territorial delegates) and six female candidates could be the next president of the United States.

What a difference a century makes.

• David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.

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