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Stories of Suffrage, Part 2: The 1915 and 1917 Partial Suffrage Bill

Blog post by Hilary Fleck

The women of Indiana began the year 1917 with high hopes and optimism – it looked as though their years of hard work lobbying the State legislature would come to fruition with the passage of the Maston-McKinley partial suffrage bill (SB 77) in February, which would allow women to vote in municipal, school and special elections. Women across the state and in Monroe County celebrated the good news and began preparing for the fall municipal elections. However, their progress was not long-lived and the opponents of women’s suffrage would again strike a critical blow.

Monroe County suffragists worked hard to rally and organize supporters, lobby their representatives, and speak to the public about the necessity of women’s suffrage for the progress of the country. In the years leading up to 1917, the suffrage movement was gaining popularity and momentum throughout the country. Women in the National Women’s Party stood as “Silent Sentinels” outside the White House, intentionally getting arrested and participating in hunger strikes to bring awareness to the suffrage cause.

LOC Penn on the picket line, suffrage

photo credit: Library of Congress

In Indiana, the Legislative Council of Indiana Women (LCIW) was established to generate bipartisan support for statewide women’s suffrage and Mrs. Johanna Johnson, of Bloomington, was appointed to the council as recording secretary. Johanna and many other women on the council drafted a partial suffrage bill and had it introduced to the state legislature in 1915. After passing the senate, the bill went to the house and was assigned to the Judiciary A Committee, of which Bloomington representative Thomas J. Sare was chairman. Representative Sare blocked the bill in his committee and the LCIW cried corruption from the liquor industry influenced Mr. Sare and prevented its passage. The LCIW would have to try again in the next legislative session of 1917.

Mrs Winfield Scott Johnson

Mrs. Johanna Johnson

In January of 1917 when both the state legislature came back into session, the partial suffrage bill was introduced in the senate by Senator Maston and the house by Representative Alldredge. With pressure from national leadership and support for suffrage in both Republican and Democratic party platforms, both houses worked quickly to push the partial suffrage legislation through to passage – but not completely without contention. Liquor lobbyists were pressuring legislators to deny women’s suffrage because of the fear that women would vote in favor of prohibition. After several moves by legislators to kill, strike out, or delay the partial suffrage bill, it passed the House in late February with 67 to 24 votes.

Although the battle had been won, the war was not over. Women across Indiana celebrated the victory and Mrs. Caroline Woodburn, President of the Bloomington Franchise League, organized registration drives to register women to vote before the fall election and planned educational lectures and programs about candidates and issues on the ballot.

Bloomington_Evening_World_Fri__Feb_23__1917_

Bloomington Evening World. February 23, 1917

However, the victory was short-lived. In August of 1917, William K. Knight of Indianapolis filed a lawsuit against the partial suffrage law. Mr. Knight alleged that the law went against the Indiana constitution’s Article 2, Section 2, which restricted voters to male citizens. The complaint also asked for a restraining order barring women to register to vote as the unconstitutionality of the act was a burden on the taxpayers.

Bloomington_Evening_World_Fri__Jul_6__1917_

Bloomington Evening World. July 6, 1917

On September 17, Judge Rochford of the Marion Superior Court ruled the law unconstitutional. The suffragists immediately appealed the decision to the State Supreme Court. On October 26, 1917, the Supreme Court agreed with Judge Rochford and ruled the partial suffrage bill unconstitutional. It was a bitter blow to Indiana suffragists. News of the defeat spread across the country and the National Women’s Party newsletter The Suffragist worried that “the Indiana decision will have immediate effect on suffrage laws in other states. A dispatch from North Dakota, where presidential suffrage was passed by the last legislature, reports that the law will be tested at once on the same grounds that the constitution defines voters as ‘male citizens.’ The same is true of the suffrage situation in Arkansas, where the legislature recently gave women the right to vote at the primaries.” (The Suffragist, 3 November 1917, page 4.)

Through the many challenges and setbacks the women of Indiana faced to gain the right to vote, momentum for a federal amendment was building. Indiana suffragists joined the National American Women’s Suffrage Association to lobby their federal representatives to support women’s suffrage and the Susan B. Anthony Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. On June 4, 1919, the amendment passed and was sent to the states for ratification and Indiana ratified it on January 16, 1920. The amendment became the law of the land on August 26, 1920.

Decades of hard work and perseverance had finally paid off and Hoosier women could now vote in all elections. The vote was never ‘given’ to them. They earned it. But unfortunately, not every Hoosier woman could vote – Native Americans and Asian Americans were not granted citizenship and African Americans were often intimidated and prevented from voting even though they were allowed to under federal law. It is important to remember at this centennial anniversary that we celebrate all that our ancestors worked for but also recognize those that were left behind.

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