History was made, but seldom on page one
The Independence Examiner was curiously – disappointingly – quiet a century ago as American women culminated more than 70 years of struggle and, 100 years ago today, finally won the right to vote.
The reasons are unclear, but the newspaper’s pages were devoted first to local news and then to the major national and world issues of the moment – chiefly Prohibition and the League of Nations.
Newspapers looked different and reported the news differently in those days. The Independence Examiner, the name this paper went by until 1963, was four or six pages most days, Monday through Saturday, with one-column headlines running side by side for seven columns across page one.
Thus it was on July 3, 1919, when “Ratifies suffrage” rested at the top of page one between “Will force paving” and “July 4 picnic.” Then just four short paragraphs, a typical story length at the time.
The first two paragraphs:
“This morning at Jefferson City the Senate adopted a resolution ratifying the woman suffrage amendment. The vote was 28 to 3.”
“In less than thirty minutes after its introduction by Representative Waller B. Baley of Jasper County the house adopted the resolution ratifying the woman suffrage amendment to the federal constitution on Wednesday. The vote was 125 to 4.”
Just as a comparison, two days later a top-of-page-one story half again as long as the suffrage story detailed two local boys’ efforts to land a yellow catfish in the Little Blue River, under the headline “Fish weighed 45 lbs.”
And then … not much. Not much news about suffrage, and little or no editorial support or opposition.
The paper didn’t have a lot of space for national or world news. Page one would have 20 or so items, generally all local except sometimes a few paragraphs on two or three topics under the standing headline “Bits of general news.”
The big stories that did get attention in “Bits of general news” included the coal strikes and shortages of late 1919 – Independence Mayor Ott himself did some of the local rationing – the beginning of Prohibition under the 18th Amendment, unrest in Mexico and most of all President Woodrow Wilson’s trips to Europe in 1919 to negotiate a treaty to formally end World War I and create the League of Nations.
There was much coverage of U.S. Sen. James A. Reed, a Democrat from Kansas City, fighting tooth and nail against his own party over the League. (Reed also staunchly and sarcastically opposed suffrage. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, he called suffragists “obnoxious” and referred to their “petticoat parade” in 1918.)
In January 1919, the paper ran a lengthy page one article on Gov. Frederick D. Gardner’s address to the General Assembly about his priorities. Tucked into that long list, along with “State bond issue of 60 million dollars for State road” and “To call a constitutional convention” was this four-word entry: “To favor Woman Suffrage.”
The article detailed the governor’s comments on state indebtedness, the impact of losing state liquor license revenues with Prohibition coming, and the dramatic decrease in the number of sheep in Missouri – but nothing beyond those four words on suffrage. It wasn’t even clear if Gardner meant a more limited suffrage – allowing women in Missouri to vote for president – which he signed that April, or if he meant the 19th Amendment, which he called legislators into special session to approve in June.
In an editorial, The Examiner noted the governor’s “excellent message” and “well considered” agenda, but didn’t specifically endorse suffrage. Editorially, the newspaper appears never to have gotten any closer than that to explicitly supporting the idea.
When Missouri legislators did approve the 19th Amendment on July 3, 1919, making Missouri just the eighth state to get on board, Examiner readers got one long paragraph of four sentences that referred to “adoption by the senate by a vote of 56 to 25 of the historic Susan B. Anthony constitutional amendment resolution.”
And this: “All of the St. Louis and Kansas City Senators opposed the measure.”
Up for discussion
In editorials, the paper at that time touched on local, state and even world issues – again and again, the League of Nations – up to six days a week. Headlines over those editorials included “Election laws,” “Booze is booze,” “The foolish wets,” “Missouri pro-League” and even “An essay on friendship.”
But no editorial supporting suffrage shows up in those critical months leading up to Congress sending the 19th Amendment to the states and Missouri approving it just a month later.
State after state joined Missouri in approving the amendment over the next 13 months, but that also was seldom noted, either editorially or in the news columns. The more pressing issues, at least in the eyes of the paper, were the local housing shortage, street car rates, phone rates, the mechanics of how Prohibition would be implemented, and everything local from rain and crops to City Hall and the need for better roads.
Soldiers were returning home from the war, and there were regular updates as the arrival of the 139th Field Artillery – Harry Truman’s unit, by the way – drew near in May 1919. Fear of Bolshevism and archarcists gripped much of the country, and the newspaper on inside pages carried short items from overseas with headlines such as “Bread $5 in Moscow.”
Prohibition was the other great reform of the era – one that didn’t work and was dropped in 1933 – and the local activities of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union made their way to page one far more frequently than did suffrage.
In the opinion space on A2, the paper supported the League at every turn, commented on Missouri Democratic politics some and local politics a lot, and playfully tweaked Kansas City and The Kansas City Star now and then in what seems today to have been a mostly friendly rivalry.
But not so much about women gaining the right to vote.
Meanwhile, America was making history, as suffrage won state by state through the second half of 1919 and then into 1920, but The Examiner’s coverage of that was nil.
A little speculation
So what was going on here? Maybe the newspaper tipped its hand in a long article just after the 18th Amendment was approved. Under the headline “Post mortem on booze,” the January 1919 article noted that the 18th Amendment was “piling the final clods on the grave of the liquor business” and recounted for readers various attempts starting in 1888 to outlaw liquor in Independence. Those efforts finally succeeded in 1915.
“Independence has been dry for four years in spite of the fact that a five cent piece carries many to Sheffield where booze was and still is to be had.”
“Independence has always had at least one dry paper. The old Sentinel in 1888 took the dry side (in a local-option vote) and lost about half of its subscribers and much business. The Examiner was started in 1898. For twenty years the files will show at least one dry editorial each week. Its first campaign caused much loss of subscribers and business but the 1914 campaign caused the loss of only six subscribers. Two of these left town, and the other four came back into the fold and are now our good friends.”
Then this: “In the fight for woman suffrage one argument has been that the women would vote out the booze. The women voted out the booze without having suffrage. The W.C.T.U. and kindred organizations, the churches, the schools, the newspapers, the preachers, the physicians, all helped. … Education voted out booze and has written the armistice. Final peace terms will be one year from this time.”
Could it be that the newspaper had, as we would say today, only so much bandwidth – only so much moral energy – and focused that energy on Prohibition at the expense of suffrage?
At last the day came. The Tennessee Legislature on Aug. 18, 1920 narrowly approved the 19th Amendment, the last needed state.
The next day on page one, below a short item about a local couple celebrating 66 years of marriage, was “Bits of general news.”
The first of just five paragraphs read, “The amendment extending equal suffrage to American women was ratified Wednesday for inclusion in the federal constitution, the lower house of the Tennessee legislature voting, 50 to 46, to concur in the senate resolution adopted on Friday by a vote of 25 to 4.”
That meant, the paper reported, that “millions of women will be free under the amendment to vote in the presidential election next November.”