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Woodrow Wilson's conversion experience: The president and the federal woman suffrage amendment

Beth A Behn, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This study explores President Woodrow Wilson’s evolution between his 1912 presidential campaign and the mid-point of his second term from staunch opposition to a federal woman suffrage amendment to an active advocate for the cause. Besides clearly identifying the array of forces within and outside Congress that pressured Wilson and the extent to which he was, in turn, able to influence Congress and voters, this study more fully integrates the suffragists and anti-suffragists into American political history and situates the issue of woman suffrage in the broader context of Wilson’s two administrations. I argue that the National American Woman Suffrage Association, not the National Woman’s Party, was decisive in Wilson’s conversion to the cause of the federal amendment because its approach mirrored his own conservative vision of the appropriate method of reform: win a broad consensus, develop a legitimate rationale, and make the issue politically valuable. Additionally, I contend that Wilson did have a significant role to play in the successful congressional passage and national ratification of the 19th Amendment, though powerful currents of sectionalism, race, and economic interests sometimes limited the extent of his influence. A deeper understanding of the final stages of the woman suffrage movement holds relevance for our understanding of both Progressive Era America and our present times. Observing Wilson treading the fragile line between executive interference and reasonable influence provides great insight into Progressive Era conceptions of separation of powers and presidential power and leadership. Furthermore, debates over woman suffrage contributed to the larger late-19 th and early-20th century debates over the meaning of citizenship and the role of the state in an increasingly industrialized nation. Enfranchising one-half the population marked a significant moment in our nation’s history. This study deepens and enriches our understanding of the process by which that momentous event came to pass.

Subject Area

American history|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Behn, Beth A, "Woodrow Wilson's conversion experience: The president and the federal woman suffrage amendment" (2012). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3498330.