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When the influenza pandemic hit, many doctors were serving in World War I so nurses and volunteers stepped in, including these women at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C.

Photograph by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group, Getty

A pandemic nearly derailed the women's suffrage movement

Women overcame influenza, social distancing, and political bias to win the right to vote.

“These are sad times for the whole world, grown unexpectedly sadder by the sudden and sweeping epidemic of influenza,” wrote Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, in a letter to supporters in 1918.

“This new affliction is bringing sorrow into many suffrage homes and is presenting a serious new obstacle in our Referendum campaigns and in the Congressional and Senatorial campaigns,” she continued. “We must therefore be prepared for failure.”

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Carrie Chapman Catt led the suffragist movement, despite a serious bout with the flu.

Suffragists had been fighting for women’s right to vote for 70 years, and victory seemed almost in reach. Even with the United States fully mobilized for World War I. President Woodrow Wilson had come out in support of a constitutional amendment, and the House of Representatives had passed it.

Then the Spanish flu struck, and the leaders of one of the longest-running political movements in the country’s history had to figure out how to continue their campaign in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in modern times. (See how some cities 'flattened the curve' of the flu pandemic.)

The first wave of the flu coursed through the country in the spring of 1918, ebbing by summertime. During that period, the Senate, dominated by southern Democrats determined to stop the enfranchisement of African-American women, was refusing to pass the bill to send the suffrage amendment to the states for ratification. Votes were announced twice, then canceled. By early fall, suffragists could see that they were two votes short of the necessary two-thirds for passage.

Finding those two senators was proving impossible. Maud Wood Park, the chief suffrage lobbyist, wrote to her husband that she felt “as if I were trying to swim in a whirlpool” and that it was taking “every ounce of thought and energy in me.” Something else needed to be done to break through.

November would see a mid-term election in which a battle between Democrats and Republicans for control of Congress loomed. Suffragists plunged into this tense atmosphere with two lines of attack. First, they would try to gain full voting rights in a few more states, where referendums would be held. (Twelve states had already granted women full voting rights.) They selected Oklahoma, Louisiana, South Dakota, and Michigan. If they succeeded, the votes of many more women would be added to pressure Congress to act. Second, they identified four suffrage opponents in the Senate who were up for reelection and whose challengers had pledged to support the federal amendment.

'Chained to her bed'

But in September the flu came roaring back, eventually killing some 675,000 people in the U.S. and 50 million worldwide. Boston and Philadelphia were hit very hard, followed by Washington, D.C., where large numbers of wartime government workers were jam-packed in inadequate housing.

In Congress, Champ Clark, the powerful Speaker of the House, caught the flu. In the Senate, where the suffrage bill languished, the galleries from which suffragists kept an eye on proceedings were closed. Then the U.S. Public Health Service issued a nationwide advisory to local health departments to prohibit large meetings and gatherings.

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Women enroll nurses to help during the influenza pandemic. Behind them, charts show mortality rates.

Suffragists’ election campaigns were immediately compromised. Organizers had to postpone a train tour of previously arrested suffrage protestors, which had been expected to draw great crowds along its route from Washington, D.C., to Oregon. On the second floor of Suffrage House in the nation’s capital, Carrie Chapman Catt was “chained to her bed” by the flu. Nonetheless, she was determined to consult on strategy with a close ally of the president, Montana Senator John Walsh, but he too was stricken with the flu. Catt couldn’t come downstairs, and Walsh couldn’t go up, so an intermediary shuttled between them to conduct their confidential discussion.

By this time, the pandemic was moving west from the ravaged cities on the Atlantic seaboard. The referendum state of South Dakota sustained a heavy blow. “Just when we had plans developed for a renewed and revised campaign,” a local organizer wrote, “along comes the influenza and cuts off all possibility of public speaking and even meetings in open air. So many homes have been touched in each locality, if not with the actual disease, with the dreadful fear which seems to be worse, that we have not been able to work with the individual voter.” Raising money was impossible, and many suffrage workers were volunteering for the Red Cross or in hospitals.

Faced by bans on public gatherings, suffragists switched to the personal touch, reaching out directly to neighbors and friends. They emphasized their patriotism and quoted the president saying that votes for women was a proper reward for their wartime sacrifice. National headquarters provided more than a million pamphlets for distribution door to door and 300 weekly bulletins for placement in local newspapers. Women signed petitions urging male voters to pass the four states’ referendums.

'Not politically safe'

More than anything, though, it was the extensive grassroots organizing suffragists had perfected that carried them through. They’d been laying the basis for their campaigns long before the influenza barreled in. Cities and towns in each state had their own organizations, linked to national strategy. Local women had developed sophisticated political skills. They knew how to identify opportunities and overcome obstacles—South Dakota and Michigan had already held several referendums. All that preparation was crucial.

The epidemic suppressed voter turnout, with three million fewer ballots cast than in the 1914 mid-term election. Nonetheless, the suffrage referendums in Michigan, South Dakota, and Oklahoma passed, each with a comfortable margin. Gratitude for the role women played during the war and now in the pandemic influenced the results. With so many physicians serving in the armed forces, nurses became the front line of care for the sick.

Only the Louisiana referendum failed. This was the first in the South, a region where women’s suffrage had been doomed by the overwhelming fear of African-American women voting. The state campaign, led by women who opposed national coordination and strategy, didn’t produce the energy, determination, and enthusiasm that brought victory elsewhere in the face of the flu crisis.

Back in the East, where suffragists campaigned to replace senate opponents, the pandemic had largely abated, and they confronted a more conventional obstacle: entrenched party power. Their biggest challenge, their most impressively organized campaign, and their greatest win was against Massachusetts Senator John Weeks, a Republican who was widely considered invincible. In Delaware, Democratic Senator Willard Saulsbury, Jr., part of the powerful DuPont family, was also defeated. “The election has taught beyond dispute,” a Chattanooga paper editorialized, “that opposition to suffrage is not politically safe for either party.”

Women in New York state, whose constitution had been amended to grant them full voting rights the year before, showed up at the polls in large numbers in the 1918 election. Catt, still recovering from the flu, insisted on going to cast her ballot—her first. Elsewhere in the state, in an ironic post-influenza achievement, women’s votes helped elect Grace Norris, a doctor who battled against the virus, as the country’s first female coroner.

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Volunteer nurses care for the sick in an auditorium that had been transformed into a temporary hospital in Oakland, California.

On November 22, 1918, World War I ended. The flu delivered one more punch during the winter, which weakened President Wilson. Republicans won control of both houses of the new Congress, and in early June 1919, the Senate finally passed the suffrage bill, 18 months after the House. Now it was time for the next battle: to get three-quarters of the states to ratify the amendment.

For the next 15 months, suffragists fought hard for ratification in the necessary 36 states. In February 1920, suffragist Aloysius Larch-Miller, ill with the flu, got out of her sick bed to testify before the Oklahoma Democratic Party convention on behalf of ratification. She won the argument, only to die of pneumonia. Months after the flu had abated, the pandemic had claimed its suffrage martyr.

Finally, Tennessee pushed the 19th Amendment across the finish line, and on August 26, 1920, women’s suffrage was inscribed into the U.S. Constitution.

Ellen Carol DuBois, professor emeritus of history at UCLA, is the author of Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote.