God bless Theodore Roosevelt, governor, president, peacemaker and Nobel Laureate, warrior and Congressional Medal of Honor winner, author of 37 books, father of five, preserver of national parks, creator of the Panama Canal, intrepid explorer – and champion of Women’s Suffrage. Yes, Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican, unapologetic, all-American, best sort.
History is quickly forgotten, but worth remembering. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. Forgotten are three pivotal facts.
First, constitutional amendments do not spring from nowhere. They emerge after years of forethought, debate, leadership. Scholars are clear: “Theodore Roosevelt was the first and most important major public official to endorse women’s suffrage.”
How serious was TR? Very. In 1880, still in college, he penned an essay, writing “there can be no question that women should have equal rights with men.” Hardly sounds controversial but was out-of-the-box in 1880.
As a young Republican legislator TR pushed women’s suffrage. As Governor and President, he hosted and honored the women’s rights movement. In 1912, running for president as a “Bull Mooser,” he proposed a referendum – allowing women to vote on the right to vote, and led a platform pledge to “securing equal suffrage.” Convinced, TR never backtracked.
During the remaining seven years of his life, TR spoke nationally and wrote compellingly to political leaders, arguing democracy requires empowering women. In 1916, TR worked with then-Republican nominee Charles Evans Hughes, later Supreme Court Justice, to support a constitutional amendment giving women the vote. Hughes followed TR’s lead.
Days before TR died in 1919, he dictated an article – posthumously published – urging “no further delay in giving women the right to vote by federal amendment,” adding “it is an absurdity longer to higgle about the matter.” Within months, the amendment became law of the land.
Second, often lost in the swirl of modern politics: Democrats – led by southern Democrats –fought against passage of the 19th Amendment, which required two-thirds of the House and Senate, three-quarters of States for ratification. As Republicans like TR and Hughes pushed for equality, Democrats blocked it in the Senate. In time, they lost, but not without early success. If not for unswerving conviction of Republicans, 1920 would not mark the women’s franchise.
Third, history is chock full of forgotten lessons, precedents, and valuable reference points. While Republicans and Democrats are ever-evolving, modern messaging obscures key facts. Republicans have long led fights for equal rights. The facts outshine critics.
The Republican Party grew from a commitment, memorialized in the Declaration of Independence, that “All Men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” “Men,” plural of “Man,” from Germanic “Mann,” meaning person. All persons are equal in God’s eyes.
Yes, the writings of Jefferson, Lincoln, and others press – in combination – liberty and equality. Other facts are illuminating. The modern Republican Party took shape around opposition to slavery, opposed by Democrats. The 13th Amendment – banning slavery – passed in 1865 with the support of every Republican but less than one-in-four Democrats.
Wind the clock ahead. TR and Republicans led creation of child labor laws, aggressive antitrust laws – including the sort that can be used against social media giants today – and a wide spectrum of laws advancing equal opportunity, restored competition, free markets, workers’ rights, and balancing equities of labor and management.
Wind forward again. Pathbreaking Civil Rights Act of 1957 was pushed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Republican – vehemently opposed by Democrats, including Lyndon Johnson. Look at Ike’s proposal, 1956 State of the Union, recorded votes, Democrat opposition. The Civil Rights Act of 1960 was also Republicans. The legacy of breaking down race barriers began with Republicans. See, e.g., https://www.eisenhowerlibrary.gov/sites/default/files/research/online-documents/civil-rights-act/civil-rights-bill.pdf; https://www.eisenhowerlibrary.gov/sites/default/files/research/online-documents/civil-rights-act/statement-of-the-attorney-general.pdf; https://www.eisenhowerlibrary.gov/sites/default/files/research/online-documents/civil-rights-act/rnc-news-release.pdf; http://www.african-american-civil-rights.org/civil-rights-act-of-1960/; https://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2020/07/republicans_led_the_way_on_civil_rights.html.
Across multiple measures of equality – measures that matter – Republicans have been pioneers, those who took the spears, knowing they would be thrown for balancing equality of opportunity and individual liberty. What they fought for – and got done – in Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s, TR’s, and Eisenhower’s time was significant, not trivial, not breezy “hail fellow” stuff, not easy.
Other measures demonstrate Republican conviction to the principle of women’s rights. Who was the first President to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court? Not FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, or Carter. It was Ronald Reagan, who appointed Sandra Day O’Connor.
Other measures? The first woman sent to Congress was Republican Jeannette Rankin of Montana, 1916. First women to serve in a State legislature – three Republicans in Colorado, 1895. First female mayor of a major city? Republican Bertha Landes, Seattle, 1924. First black woman in a State legislature? Republican Minnie Harper, West Virginia, 1928. First female Cabinet Secretary? Oveta Hobby, appointed by Eisenhower. First woman to serve in US House and Senate, also to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency by a major party? Maine’s Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith.
Finally, what about passage of the 19th Amendment? Well, it was the first bill, first act of the Republican-controlled Congress – after retaking control in 1920. TR did not live to see it, but 40 years after he wrote that out-of-the-box college essay, it happened.
Historical facts are often obscured, diminished by those wishing not to recall. But recall we must, because who we are depends on who we were, and who we were is often forgotten. Republicans championed Women’s Suffrage, have long been the fulcrum on which equality and liberty are balanced. That is a proud tradition, a good one to remember at the Centennial.