Logic won in 1920, but will it win in 2020?
While New Year’s Day in 2020 kicks off a year of fiery campaigning for President Trump and Democratic presidential hopefuls, it also kicks off the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote in 1920. The most explosive campaign of the decades-long women’s suffrage story reveals a truth that is relevant to today’s electioneering. The sensation of a campaign will fade, but the logic behind it — the reality of the message — is what lasts and resonates.
On New Year’s Day in 1919, the Associated Press reported these sensational headlines from the White House: “Militant scuffs cause riot around watchfire” and “constant clash over ‘watchfire;’ one explosion.” But this was no New Year’s Eve fireworks show. This was a watchfire at the White House set by women seeking the right to vote.
Suffragists from the National Woman’s Party led by Alice Paul placed an urn on the sidewalk in direct line of President Woodrow Wilson’s door. Using symbolic wood from a tree in Philadelphia’s Independence Square, they lit a watchfire.
“We decided, therefore, to keep a perpetual fire to consume the president’s speeches on democracy as fast as he made them in Europe,” Doris Stevens later reflected in the memoir Jailed for Freedom.
Whenever they threw Wilson’s latest speech into the fire, they rang a bell from NWP headquarters on Lafayette Square across the street.
“It tolls again as the president’s words are tossed to the flames. His speech to the workingmen of Manchester; his toast to the king at Buckingham Palace.”
The women were angry that President Wilson had not used his political capital to convince two more senators to vote for the constitutional Amendment granting women voting rights.
The Wilson watchfire was the latest in a sensational campaign of protesting that began two years earlier in January 1917, when the NWP began picketing the White House. Called Silent Sentinels, women came from across America to silently hold signs in front of the White House.
Though the sight of persevering women of all ages standing in the frigid cold as Wilson passed through the gates led to sensational headlines, the signs’ logic resonated: “We demand an amendment to the Constitution of the United States enfranchising women.”
Women had been fighting for the right to vote since 1848, when hundreds met in Seneca Falls, New York, and issued the Declaration of Sentiments for women, which was based on the Declaration of Independence. Although some states, such as Wyoming, had granted women suffrage, a national amendment was necessary to give all women voting rights.
When Wilson drew Americans into World War I in 1917, he asked both men and women to stand for liberty in Europe. The Silent Sentinels tapped a logical, ironic comparison to make their point with this signage: “Russia and England are enfranchising their women in war-time. How long must American women wait for their liberty?”
When French and English diplomatic allies visited Wilson, the sentinels held signs declaring: “Democracy should begin at home. We demand justice and self-government at home.”
The logic behind the signs embarrassed Wilson, who was asking American mothers to sacrifice their sons for democracy in Europe while failing to use his power as the Democratic Party’s leader to push for their right to vote.
“We have used great words, all of us. We have used the words “right” and “justice,” and now we are to prove whether or not we understand these words,” a suffragist declared of the New Year’s Day 1919 watchfire campaign.
Supporting the logic of the suffragists’ goal and not wanting to see the protesters endure brutality and terror in jail as many had in 1917, Wilson twisted arms but only secured one more Senate vote. Though it wasn’t enough to pass the suffrage measure before the end of the Democratic-controlled Senate in March 1919, the new Republican-controlled Senate swiftly passed the 19th Amendment on June 4, 1919. The Tennessee legislature officially added women’s suffrage to the Constitution when it became the 36th state to ratify the Amendment on August 18, 1920. Women across the nation voted for the first time in 1920, giving Republican-nominee Warren Harding the presidency.
Though the emotion against President Wilson came and went, the logic of the suffragists’ argument against injustice still rings true. Women were fighting “for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government.” America was founded on the principle of representation. Women were being governed without their consent. The 19th Amendment corrected that injustice.
Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for the great communicator Ronald Reagan, but the phenomenon of emotion versus logic this way: “The most moving thing in a speech is its logic. It’s not the flowery words or flourishes; it’s not the sentimental appeals, it’s never the faux poetry we’re all subjected to these days. It’s the logic behind your case. A good case well-argued and well said is inherently moving.”
In 1992 voters responded positively to Bill Clinton’s “the economy, stupid” because the emotional message was rooted in logic. The facts of the economy were negative at the time. Many rejected George H.W. Bush because he had failed his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge.
As this new year begins, many attention-grabbing things will be said in 2020. Emotions will run high on both sides of the political aisle as sensational watchfires. But many voters will use logic to evaluate if President Trump has kept his promise to make America great again by looking at the results of today’s economy, especially as it applies to them.
Many voters will weigh the practicality behind Democratic plans, whether it’s “Medicare for All,” free college tuition, or wealth taxes. Many will compare capitalism and socialism.
One hundred years from now, when the emotion and hype are gone, historians will seek and find the logic behind the 2020 election while celebrating the 200th anniversary of women’s suffrage.
Jane Hampton Cook, is a presidential historian and the author of nine books, including “The Burning of the White House and Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War.” She is a former White House webmaster for President George W. Bush. Her screenplay SAVING WASHINGTON taps the zeitgeist of political polarization and uniting around service. She is a consultant for the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission.