One hundred years ago, President Warren Harding, the first president elected after passage of the 19th amendment gave all women the right to vote, was inaugurated. While helping to elect the scandal-plagued Harding may have been an inauspicious beginning for women voters, their participation in that election was the culmination of 72 years of effort.
Had either of the two major parties been responsible for women’s suffrage, that party would be constantly trumpeting its accomplishment. But neither party wanted to displease the male electorate. Then, when success started to appear possible, neither party wanted to upset future women voters.
And the courts? In 1872, Virginia Minor, first president of the Missouri Woman Suffrage Association, brought suit after her registration to vote in St. Louis was not accepted. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that it was too late to claim the right of suffrage by implication in the Constitution. The court looked at the original intent of the founders and refused to “update” its interpretation. Missouri women tried unsuccessfully to get the 1875 Constitutional Convention to approve the female franchise. They were likewise unsuccessful in getting language in the St. Louis City Charter to exempt the property of women from state taxes as they were disenfranchised. In 1914, women’s suffrage was presented to Missouri voters by initiative petition. The split was not on partisan lines. U.S. Rep. “Champ” Clark, a Democrat and speaker of the House, believed women’s suffrage was “as inevitable as the rising of tomorrow’s sun.” He threw his considerable weight in favor of the amendment to the state constitution. U.S. Sen. James Reed, also a Democrat, was a vocal critic. In the end, its ballot position – the 13th amendment voters had before them that year – proved unlucky.
St. Charles County voted against the amendment 3,277 to 526. A Republican paper, the Cosmos-Monitor, said, “We feel the ladies of Missouri will never place anymore confidence in men’s promises. Even in St. Charles, many of the men promised the ladies to vote for them and then forgot all about it at the polls.”
The suffragists kept pushing their cause, and in January 1918, President Wilson announced his support for a federal suffrage amendment “as a war measure.” The next day, the House of Representatives approved the 19th amendment by one vote. In the summer of 1919, the Senate, by a large Republican majority and a small Democratic one, passed the amendment.
Given the split within the Democratic Party and the way the 1914 initiative had been clobbered in St. Charles County, it is amazing that the 1918 election saw the first female candidate in St. Charles County and probably in the state. On the ballot as the Democratic candidate for county clerk was “Mrs. Irwin Ehlmann.” The St. Charles Banner News, the Democratic paper, stated, “In placing Mrs. Ehlmann on the ticket, the Democrats have shown themselves to be in the vanguard for the coming movement for equal suffrage. They’re not waiting until sentiment forces them to put up women for office but they are showing the world in advance that they have faith in a popular idea that is sweeping through every state in the union.”
The editorial in the Republican paper never mentioned Mrs. Ehlmann or attacked her directly. Nevertheless it was surely intended to send a subliminal message when it used “man” or “men” five times and claimed, for her incumbent opponent, that “no other man…has a cleaner record in office.” The editorial concluded, “the Republican ticket is composed of excellent men.”
Neil Ehlmann received only 27 percent of the vote. Of course, this was a vast improvement on the 14 percent the 13th amendment had received four years earlier. Her vote total was only 28 short of the male Democratic candidate for probate judge and 66 votes shy of the male Democratic candidate for prosecutor. And remember that women were not yet allowed to vote. What might appear today as a stunning defeat was probably a great moral victory in 1918.