Debate between Laura Clay and Madeline McDowell Breckinridge over the Anthony Amendment

Randolph Hollingsworth's picture

Debate before the Woman’s Club of Central Kentucky
October 18th, 1919
Won by the Negative - Miss Clay.


That Both Sections of the Anthony Federal Amendment Constitute the Proper Method of Extending Suffrage to Women.

AFFIRMATIVE: Mrs. Desha Breckinridge,
President of State Equal Rights Association

NEGATIVE: Miss Laura Clay,
President of The Citizens Committee for State Suffrage Amendment.

--- Judges ---
Judge W.T. Lafferty   Mr. Edward L. Hutchinson   Dr. Samuel H. Halley
Mr. Nathan Elliott   Mr. Matt Savage Walton


Miss Clay Said:

Madam President and Friends: --

In considering the proposed Federal Amendment under discussion the first point to be noted is that the amendment consists of two sections each containing a provision which makes changes in the Constitution widely different from each other in their results, though both violate the principle of States Rights. This fault is in both sections; as for the rest, in speaking to the first section it will suffice for me to point out that a Federal Amendment is not necessary for the speedy success of woman suffrage, and that at best the Anthony amendment does not make women the political peers of men.

The principle of woman suffrage is entirely consistent with the Federal Constitution as it now stands. When the Constitution was adopted in 1789 New Jersey had already conferred suffrage upon a small class of women, and when the States in the last century began to extend suffrage to women no obstacle arose from the Federal Constitution. Now in fifteen States women have full suffrage; they can vote for president in thirty States, and indeed there remain only eight States in which women have not some form of partial suffrage. The principle has been so thoroughly accepted that in the presidential year of 1916 every political national platform declared for it, the Republican and Democratic platforms pronouncing in set terms in favor of its extension by State action. It may be observed here that these platforms are more reliable interpreters of the sentiment of the mass of the people than any suffrage State or national associations organized for propaganda, for they never have represented the full suffrage sentiment of any State, as has been shown often in State referenda where the voters for woman suffrage, whether the amendment lost or won, were in excess of the pre-campaign number of men and women enrolled in the state suffrage associations.

At the rate women have been enfranchised since 1916 and with the momentum of the movement constantly growing all the states probably will extend suffrage by state action within ten or twelve years. It would seem that woman suffrage really requires no Federal amendment at all, but that this momentous political question might be left to work itself out in the States, without the risk of undue haste in a change in the fundamental law of the nation excluding any opportunity for the voice of the people to be heard upon it. This appears to be a safe conclusion even if the amendment gave suffrage to women in its most satisfactory form. But this is not the case with the Anthony amendment. If it is ratified it would indeed make the word "male" in the election clause of the State constitutions a dead letter, but the word would remain there a silent witness of a demarkation between the political rights of men and the political rights of women; a barrier against complete unity of men and women in sentiment toward the source of their rights, and in the legal rights flowing from that source. With the success of woman suffrage apparently assured in the near future by state action it is hard to mention any result from hastening it by Federal amendment which would justify thrusting men and women into two groups of electors some of whose interests would be different or even antagonistic. The amendment would not make women the political peers of men who have received their right to vote from the people speaking through their State constitutions. Anything less in the case of women, therefore, than the spoken consent of the people would be a mark of submission to some other authority than the people of their own State and would leave an inference of inequality either in the right to vote or the desirability of the class of voters thus created. This position, humliating both to men and women, would in the end lead to a demand for relief from it through a State amendment to remove the discriminating word "male" from the election clause of the State constitutions.

The first section, therefore, is negative in several features. But when we turn to the second section we find no accepted principles or negative provisions in it. It bristles with antagonism to the fundamental and distinctive principles of our government by proposing an accession to the enumerated powers of the Federal government which would make Congress the most autocratic constitutional legislative body of any country, and would effect a veritable revolution in our form of government. It provides that "The Congress shall have power by appropriate legislation to enforce the provisions of this article." In other words, it gives power to Congress to legislate on State elections where women are involved, both in States where women are enfranchised already and in those where they may become so by the operation of the amendment.

When the Constitution was adopted in 1789 there was established a dual system of government differing in that respect from that of the mother country, consisting of the Federal government to which were delegated only certain enumerated powers relating to the general welfare, and the State governments, with constitutions and legislatures which exercised all the remaining governmental powers which in the mother country were exercised by Parliament. Article 10th of the Constitution provides that "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States are reserved to the States respectively or to the people." These separate governments, each within its own province, were to make laws and provide for their administration. The rights of the people were guarded by strict lines of demarkation between the legislation of Congress acting only with the enumerated powers delegated, and all other legislation which each State was to exact according to its own local requirements. The control of times, places and manner of the elections for Senators and Representatives and other Federal officers were carefully prescribed in the Constitution; and on the other hand no interference with State elections in any form was among the delegated powers of the United States. For it is evident that if any power to regulate the conditions of elections for either of these governments should rest in the hands of the other, the right of self-determination of the laws of that government would be destroyed to the degree of that regulation. Therefore the reservation to the States or to the people of entire control of State elections was the all-sufficient check provided by the framers of the Constitution against the possiblity of any section or party having the stronger representation in Congress subordinating to itself the interests of sections of States less numerously represented. Until 1870 there never was any infringement of this protective right; but then, in the disorder of the nation during the reconstruction period after the Civil War an infringement upon it was made by the passage of the 15th amendment, of which the Anthony amendment is a repetition with the exchange of the word "sex" for "race, color or previous condition of servitude" in their first sections. The Enforcement Act of the 15th amendment, commonly called the Force Bill of May 1870, was enacted under it, and the effect of the breach of one of the fundamental protective provisions of our Constitution was quickly manifested. Whether or not it is an inherent vice of elective governments it is a fact recognized by all observers that in State elections the party which appoints the officials to conduct the elections and controls what is familiarly called the "machine" controls to a very appreciable extent the result of the elections. Now under the Force Bill Congress controlled the "machine" and State legislatures elected under the Force Bill responded in their State legislation to the interests of the dominant party in Congress and not to the interests of their several States. For while the Force Bill was passed ostensibly for the benefit of the newly enfranchised black men all historians agree that it became quickly a partisan instrument used without respect for the welfare of the States subject to its provisions and was so used until the excess of its abuse of power finally aroused the indignation of the country at large and caused some of its most oppressive provisions to be repealed. But the license to legislate on State elections within the racial conditions of the 15th amendment is still in full force.

Abuse of unchecked power by Congress is not an incident pertaining to any particular party, for the whole history of the world proves that sooner or later every autocratic power acts for its own selfish interests. It is the province of history to record how it acted through the Force Bill of 1870, and the light of that history is the surest teacher of what to expect from an Enforcement Act of the Anthony amendment. History is written in vain if we learn nothing from it. An instructive fact we may learn relevant to this discussion is that the power conferred on Congress to legislate on State elections by the 15th amendment, though with limitations of race which confied it to about one-tenth of the population chiefly resident in a few states was sufficient to exploit those States in the manner recorded in history. If the Anthony amendment is ratified it would be cumulative in its effect to the 15th, and as women constitute one half of the population, distributed all over the States, Congress will have the power, and owing to the frailty of human nature may exercise it to exploit in some similar manner any States or section, north, south, east or west, which may contain a prize, political or commercial, large enough to excite the cupidity of the dominant party, if it has not a Congressional representation numerous enough to protect its own people against the majority.

The second section of the Anthony amendment in conjunction with that of the 15th amendment would place about fifty-five per cent of the voters of the whole country under the ascendency of Congress, leaving only the white men, or forty-five per cent, entirely free in the exercise of their State electoral rights. Thus power would be largely centralized in the Federal government, and Congress would become the most autocratic legislative body in any constitutional government. For in other centralized constitutional governments, like that of Great Britain, Parliament is constrained to obey the will of the majority of the voters, through a system of dissolving parliament when it fails to do so, and leaving the mooted law to the decision of the people in a new election. But in our system of dual government there is no such check upon autocratic power except in form of the States Rights which would be so deeply impaired by such an amendment as the one under discussion.

Because this amendment is called a woman suffrage amendment it would be a grave mistake to suppose that all its political advocates are in favor of it for the sake of woman suffrage. There is nothing in its history to bear out any such idealistic supposition. The ratification of the Anthony amendment is less a question of extending suffrage to women where the states have not done so than of conferring upon Congress certain autocratic powers over the votes for women however they may be gained. It is evident that it gives to states and sections having many Congressmen a great access of power to dictate public policies in states or sections which have a less numerous representation in Congress.

Other influences beside love of woman suffrage are certainly working for the ratification of this amendment. For instance, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts combined have fifty-five Congressmen, exactly the number possessed by the eleven states of the combined Pacific and Mountain Divisions. The Legislatures of these two states recently rejected the proposal to grant women presidential suffrage, which is within their gift, and yet a few days later those legislatures by enormous majorities ratified the Anthony amendment. It doe not appear therefore that they want woman suffrage in their own states with women voting under the same laws as the men. But the amendment they voted for, if ratified, will equalize their power with eleven Western states to put under congressional thrall not only the electoral rights of the women of their own states but of every other state, including those where they are already enfrancised by state action.

It is lamentable that the noble cause of woman suffrage has ever come to be a pawn in a sinister political game; for there is not a state or a section of the Union which has not a vital interest in resisting a Federal amendment which breaks down the dignity and authority of State governments to transfer autocratic power to Congress unchecked by constitutional guards.


Judge Lafferty announced that the decision of the judges was in favor of the negative, though it was not unanimous.


*** Source ***

Pettit, Duncan, Gibson Family Papers, box 64, folder 4. University of Kentucky Special Collections.