How Women’s Suffrage Activists Lobbied Congress For The Vote: Lessons For Us

The Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality Monument in Washington, D.C. was once the headquarters building for the National Woman’s Party. There women — many young, many militant — planned strategy, wrote and produced the party’s newspaper, The Suffragist, and returned for rest after serving time in jail.

On display for visitors these days are many markers of the Votes for Women campaign — including a poster of Inez Milholland, riding at the head of a parade on a white horse, looking for all the world like a new Joan of Arc.

But perhaps the most memorable of the museum’s artifacts are the index card boxes. There, atop the desk where suffragists worked, there were boxes, so many boxes, and inside were a treasure of index cards that contained information on each member of Congress — whether he was in favor of suffrage or opposed, whether his wife or a major donor was lobbying him one way or the other, whether he might be swayed by a push from the White House. Suffrage lobbyists were instructed to update the index cards on every congressman regularly, visiting again to ascertain if there had been any changes. It was grueling work, requiring tact, manners and good shoes.

In Revelations of a Woman Lobbyist, suffragist Maud Younger recounted some of her experiences.

One congressman she visited was Rep. Richard Whaley if South Carolina. “Mr. Whaley’s face is red; his head is prematurely gray outside and his thoughts prematurely gray inside,” she recounts. With a “large masculine manner,” he tells her, “We don’t need women voting in South Carolina. We know how to take care of our women in our State. We don’t allow divorce for any reason whatsoever.”

If a member of Congress told a visiting suffrage lobbyist that he didn’t get much mail on the issue, headquarters would send word to his district, and supporters would make sure he did. If he said his mother had been lobbying him to vote for women’s suffrage, the party would recruit his Mom.

On March 2, 1919, the New York Times revealed details of the sophisticated system used by the women. The index system is “so extensive in detail, political and personal,” said the Times, “that twenty-two different cards are required for each Senator and Representative. Among them — cards on health and habits, on political life prior to Congress, on the margin of re-election at the last campaign. “No detail is overlooked that might give a lobbyist an insight into how best to approach the Congressman in question.”

Asked why she was assembling such a trove of information on each member, Younger replied, “Some congressmen get to their offices early, one I know at 7:30, and this is often the best time during the day to see them. Then if a member is a drinking man we want to know that. One of our lobbyists may go to him and not know what is the matter with him.”

When the women first started lobbying Congress in 1913, their budget was $10. By 1919, that number had risen to $100,000. And on June 4, 1919, just a few months after the Times article on suffragist tactics, Congress enacted the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women the constitutional right to vote.

Anyone who thinks it was easy, or quick, or unsophisticated, hasn’t seen those boxes and boxes of index cards.

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