Selected Dora Kelly Lewis Correspondence, July 4, 1917-April 14, 1920
The 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification on June 4, 1919. It was finally adopted on August 18, 1920, when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify. Both of those milestones were achieved after years—nearly a century—of struggle.
The National American Woman's Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which had formed in 1890 through the merger of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association, continued to pressure for a constitutional amendment as well as for suffrage in individual states as the 20th century began. But its tactics were too conservative for some activists, such as Alice Paul, who broke off from NAWSA in 1913 to form the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, later named the National Woman's Party (NWP). Adopting more militant tactics than NAWSA, NWP members became the first women to picket the White House for suffrage. While NAWSA curtailed its protests during World War I, NWP, which also opposed the war, did not. In July 1917, NWP members Dora Kelly Lewis, Lucy Burns, and others were arrested for displaying a banner outside the White House that accused President Wilson and the United States of hypocrisy for claiming to fight for democracy when there was not yet democracy at home (an argument African Americans would later make during World War II). Actions such as these were controversial, since many believed that they hurt the war effort.
Lewis and her fellow protestors were jailed again in November 1917 and imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse, where they were brutally treated and where she and Lucy Burns led a series of hunger strikes. Lewis was eventually force-fed through a tube. Undeterred by this experience, Lewis was once again arrested for protesting in the summer of 1918 and then again in January 1919, when she burned a copy of one of President Wilson's speeches on democracy in the first of what would become known as the "Watchfire" demonstrations.
After Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment in the summer of 1919, Lewis and other suffrage activists turned their attention to the states to secure ratification. Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan all passed the amendment on June 10, 1919, and other midwestern, western, and northern states soon followed. By April 1920, 35 of the necessary 36 states needed for ratification had passed the amendment. Suffragists accordingly marshaled their forces in the handful of states, such as Delaware, that had not already explicitly rejected the amendment. Dora Kelly Lewis was active in the fight for suffrage in Delaware, but she was to be unsuccessful. In Delaware, as in many southern states, anti–woman suffrage activists exploited the fear that woman suffrage would strengthen the black vote. Delaware rejected the amendment on June 2, 1920, and Tennessee won the distinction of completing ratification when it voted for the amendment on August 18, 1920. On November 2, 1920, eight million women cast their ballots for the first time.
"Crowd Destroys Suffrage Banner at White House," New York Times, June 21, 1917.
"Four Suffragettes Arrested in Capital," New York Times, June 24, 1917.
Eric Klinek, "A Personal Glimpse of a Political Movement," Pennsylvania Legacies 8, no. 2, Suffrage in Pennsylvania (2008): 3-5.
Dora Kelly Lewis Correspondence (Collection 2137), Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920).
"Urges War Work by Women," New York Times, June 19, 1917.
"White House 'Riot' Broken Up by Police," New York Times, July 5, 1917.
"Women Will Renew White House Picket," New York Times, July 9, 1917.