By Patty Pollitzer, NPS Volunteer
Countless women (and some men) devoted themselves to obtaining the vote for women. Some worked at the national level alongside and inspired by Alice Paul. Maybe they marched in the 1913 procession down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC. Maybe they held up a banner outside the White House gates in 1917. Many more engaged at the state or local level. We are likely to hear about national organizations like the National Woman’s Party (NWP) or the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), but the country had a patchwork of sometimes loosely affiliated groups in cities, counties, and states campaigning for “equal suffrage.” Members of these groups might set up a booth on the main street of their town and hand out lemonade and suffrage literature.
That’s how my great aunt, Anita Pollitzer, started her suffrage work in South Carolina for the Equal Suffrage League of Charleston when she was home from college in the summer of 1915. (Her older sisters, Carrie and Mabel, had been supporters of the League since its founding in 1913.) When Anita returned to Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City in the fall of 1915, she marched in the suffrage parade down 5th Avenue. At this point, suffrage was a relatively minor interest for Anita; her focus was really on art. But when Anita was back in Charleston in March 1917, Elsie Hill of the NWP came to town to talk suffrage. Anita and her sisters helped arrange the logistics for Hill’s evening talk. The next morning Elsie Hill told Anita she should work for suffrage at the national level. After graduating college and spending a few summers teaching art at the University of Virginia, that’s exactly what Anita did.
One day in the fall of 1918, Anita took the train from Charlottesville to Washington, D.C. and presented herself to Alice Paul at NWP headquarters. In what appears to be Alice Paul’s usual style, she put Anita to work immediately. In a newspaper article from 1923, Anita recalled that first meeting with Alice Paul. She recounted that Paul asked Anita if she’d had lunch. A somewhat puzzled Anita replied yes. Paul said that was a good thing because she wanted Anita to go immediately to the Capitol and start talking to certain Congressmen. Anita apparently did well with that task. A month later she was in Wyoming lobbying on behalf of the NWP, sending letters to Paul recounting “snow miles high” and the “influenza epidemic so bad that it was considered immoral for six women to meet in a parlor.” So she “tramped the automobile roads and papered the trees” with posters.
In January 1919, Anita was in Florida to talk state legislators into passing a resolution urging their U.S. Senators to press for passage of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment in the Senate. This was an NWP tactic — get state legislators to bring pressure for federal action. They’d reverse this approach (from federal politicians toward state legislatures) in the subsequent fight for ratification. It wasn’t just legislators the NWP appealed to as part of their strategy. Anita attended the semi-annual meeting of the South Florida Press Association to get their support for a resolution favoring suffrage. As one newspaper article recounted: “Miss Anita Pollitzer, a pretty captivating girl from Charleston South Carolina mingled freely, but modestly, amongst the editors and charmed all of the with her smiles and vivacity.” The Association passed the resolution for women’s suffrage unanimously.
Anita had boundless energy, persistence, and absolute faith in the rectitude of her cause. These qualities made her a formidable force. Toward the end of January 1920, when suffragists wanted the governor of Washington state to call a special session of the legislature to vote on ratification the governor tried to duck any meetings with suffragists. But Anita persisted and “finally got an interview with the governor by suddenly corralling him in the lobby of the Willard hotel.” It didn’t hurt that her energy, intellect, and conviction were contained in a petite brunette with a ready smile, lilting Southern accent, and gracious charm.
In March 1920, Anita became Secretary of the legislative committee of the NWP. She was only 25 years old, the youngest of the NWP officers. She took part in the NWP’s federal and state strategies. In the Summer of 1920 she was one of the NWP contingent that picketed the Republican convention in Chicago. That summer she also met with Democratic presidential nominee Cox and Republican nominee Harding in Ohio.
Anita participated in the ratification battles in numerous states and employed various tactics. Sometimes she worked from Washington, D.C. The governor of South Dakota was reluctant to call a special session of the legislature to vote on ratification. Anita talked to South Dakota’s U.S. Senator and the Secretary of the Republican Congressional Committee to pressure state legislators to show the governor their support for ratification. South Dakota ratified December 4, 1920. Anita used similar behind the scenes maneuvering to achieve ratification in Wyoming and New Jersey.
Sometimes, Anita joined NWP members on the ground in the state itself. After Washington became the 35th state to ratify the Amendment on March 22, 1920, the push was on for one remaining state. Attention first turned to Delaware. Anita was there with numerous other NWP members. Unfortunately, Delaware did not ratify, and eyes turned to Tennessee.
Sue White led the NWP contingent in Tennessee, her home state. Anita was responsible for the eastern part of the state and for Republicans. Concerned about lack of support from Republican legislators she went to see the influential Republican former governor Ben Hooper. Anita spent the day with him and got him to telephone Republican legislators. When he got home at the end of the day Hooper’s wife asked what he’d done that day. He said: “Suffrage that’s all. A little suffragist came into my office this morning and made me do everything except jump through a hoop and if she had asked me I’d have done that too.”
The Tennessee Senate approved ratification on August 13 by a wide margin, but there was much doubt about the House. NWP lobbyists worked nearly around the clock, constantly checking in with legislators and comparing notes with each other every few hours. Among the legislators in the eastern part of the state for which Anita was responsible was 24 year-old Harry Burn. Anita had gone to his Republican county chairman and asked if Harry would support ratification. The county chairman had telephoned Harry Burn while Anita was standing there and assured Anita that Burn would support suffrage. When in Nashville, Burn was approached by suffragists and anti-suffragists. He told both of them that he was uncertain. A few days before the vote he told suffragists “I cannot pledge myself but I will do nothing to hurt you.” (Irwin p. 460). On the day of the vote, although wearing a red rose (the flower of the antisuffragists), he again assured them “my vote will never hurt you.”
As is well known, Burn voted in favor of tabling ratification, but when the time came to vote on ratification itself, he voted “aye.” Although accounts of the famous vote often cite a letter from Burn’s mother Febb as the reason he voted to ratify the suffrage amendment, I like to think that Anita had something to do with it too.
After ratification of the 19th Amendment, Anita turned her sights on other aspects of women's social, political, and ecomonic equality. In 1923, the National Woman's Party proposed another amendment to the U.S. Constitution which became known as the Equal Rights Amendment. Anita Pollitzer, like many in the NWP, fought for the ERA for the rest of her life.
Georgia O'Keefe and Anita Pollitzer, Lovingly, Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O'Keefe and Anita Pollitzer ed. Clive Gilboire (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990).
"New Type 'Equal Rights' Crusader Belies the Old-Time Conception of a Suffragette," New York Evening Telegram, March 25, 1923.
Inez Haynes Irwin, The Story of the Woman's Party (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1921), 329.
"Fascinating Girl of Charleston, S.C.," Punta Gorda Herald. January 16, 1919.
"Hart Stands Pat Against Calling Special Session," Washington Standard, January 23, 1920.
Rock Island Argus, March 18, 1920.
"Women from District to Picket Convention," Washington Herald, June 4, 1920.
"Democratic Nominee Cox Starts for Washington Today," Norwich Bulletin, July 19,1920; "Women to Establish Offices at Columbus," South Bend News-Times, July 19,1920.
"Suffragist 'Missionary' Tells of Strenuous Days Tracking Down Tennessee Legislators," Washington Herald. August 29, 1920.