16 Things You Might Not Know About Tammy Duckworth

United States Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
United States Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Democrat Tammy Duckworth was sworn in as the freshman senator from Illinois on January 3, 2017—and on April 9, 2018, she became the first sitting U.S. senator to give birth. A combat veteran with a PhD, she has an impressive history of overcoming adversity with grit and humor.

1. SHE HAD AN INTERNATIONAL CHILDHOOD.

Ladda Tammy Duckworth was born in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1968. Her father, Franklin Duckworth, was an American Marine who had served in World War II. The Vietnam War then brought him to Asia, where he stayed to work with refugees for the United Nations. In Thailand, he met Lamai Sompornpairin, a Thai native of Chinese descent, and they got married. Soon Tammy entered the picture, followed by her brother, Thomas.

Franklin’s work for the UN and various international companies took his family all over Southeast Asia. During the first 16 years of her life, Tammy lived in Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia (then the Khmer Republic), Singapore, and Hawaii. Life was chaotic at times: “I remember my mother taking me as a very little kid to the roof of our home in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to look at the bombs exploding in the distance,” Duckworth wrote in Politico. “She didn’t want us to be scared by the booms and the strange flashes of light. It was her way of helping us to understand what was happening.” Duckworth’s family fled Cambodia in April 1975, two weeks before the Khmer Rouge took over the capital.

By 1982, the Duckworths were living in Singapore, where Tammy attended the Singapore American School. She excelled academically—skipping ninth grade—and athletically, playing volleyball and medalling in shot put for the varsity track team.

2. IMMIGRATION DISCUSSIONS HAVE A PERSONAL RESONANCE.

When the company Franklin worked for was sold, he lost his job, and the Duckworth family moved to the United States. But Lamai, a non-citizen, initially could not enter the country. Teenaged Tammy and her younger brother, Tommy, were separated from their mother for six months while Lamai navigated the American immigration system. Duckworth has supported comprehensive immigration reform during her time in the House, tying the issue to family values and women’s rights.

3. SHE KNOWS WHAT IT’S LIKE TO NEED HELP.

Her family settled in Hawaii in 1984 because, Duckworth has said, “[T]hat’s where we were when the money ran out. We couldn’t go any further.” Franklin, then in his 50s, had a difficult time finding work, so teenaged Tammy got an after-school job and Lamai took in sewing, which she completed in the family’s studio apartment. During her time at Honolulu’s McKinley High School, Duckworth relied on reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches and her family tried to make it on food stamps. “I remember to this day at the grocery store, we would go and count out the last five brown $1 food stamps—I still remember the color,” Duckworth said in August.

Duckworth says her family’s struggles with poverty give her extra motivation to fight for working families and to support government safety nets and strong public schools. When she encounters Americans who have lost their jobs or who are suffering through a weak economy, Duckworth says, “I understand the challenges they’re facing, because I’ve faced them myself.”

4. SHE WENT TO COLLEGE THANKS TO STUDENT LOANS AND GRANTS.

By the time Duckworth was applying to college, her family remained in a financially precarious position. “The summer before I started college,” she told the Democratic National Convention in 2016, “my parents walked everywhere instead of taking the bus. Once a week, they would hand over $10 to the university housing office, a deposit so I could move into the dorms in the fall.” Government-funded Pell grants, waitressing, and student loans helped Duckworth to graduate from the University of Hawaii in 1989 with a bachelor’s in political science.

5. SHE WANTED TO BE AN AMBASSADOR—BUT FELL IN LOVE WITH THE ARMY.

Tommy Duckworth with a World War II vet. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain

After finishing undergrad, Duckworth moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue a master’s in international affairs at George Washington University. She wanted to enter the foreign service in hopes of eventually becoming an ambassador—her dream since she was a child—and the school had among the highest passing rates for the foreign services exams at the time. While at George Washington, Duckworth noticed that many of her classmates were active or retired military personnel, and “I just naturally gravitated toward those folks as my friends,” she said. These friends encouraged her to try ROTC, and Duckworth joined in 1990. “I was interested in becoming a Foreign Service officer; I figured I should know the difference between a battalion and a platoon if I were going to represent my country overseas someday. What I didn’t expect was to fall in love with the camaraderie and sense of purpose that the military instills in you,” Duckworth wrote in Politico.

6. SHE MET HER HUSBAND THROUGH ROTC.

Duckworth also fell in love with a fellow cadet named Bryan Bowlsbey. Bowlsbey had spent five years as an enlisted soldier before going back to school at the University of Maryland and beginning the training to become a commissioned officer. As a graduate student, Duckworth was also older than most of the other cadets in ROTC, who were undergraduates, and she and Bowlsbey hit it off—after a rocky start. She told C-SPAN in 2005, “He made a comment that I felt was derogatory about the role of women in the Army, but he came over and apologized very nicely and then helped me clean my M16.”

7. SHE HAD ACADEMIC AMBITIONS …

While working on her master’s degree, Duckworth took a job assisting the curator for Asian history at the Smithsonian, putting together anthropological exhibits on Asia. Intellectually excited by the work, she began considering pursuing a PhD. Her boss insisted that the best school for scholars focusing on Southeast Asia was Northern Illinois University, so Duckworth went to DeKalb, Illinois, to check out the school. “I went and fell in love,” she told Chicago Magazine. “I did not know I was a Midwesterner until I got there. I just fell in love with the people.”

After being accepted at the school, Duckworth packed her things and moved to Illinois. Bowlsbey followed, and the two were soon married.

8. … BUT THE ARMY TOOK PRECEDENCE.

After receiving her Army Reserves commission in 1992, Duckworth selected helicopter pilot as her first-choice assignment. It was one of very few combat roles available to women at the time. “I was going to get the same rank, the same pay, and I wanted to face the same risks [as male officers],” Duckworth said. In 1993, she suspended her doctoral education to attend flight school at Fort Rucker in Alabama, where she spent a year. The only woman in her unit, Duckworth knew she couldn’t show any weakness to her male colleagues. She logged more hours in the flight simulator than any other student, she says, and finished in the top three of her flight class of 40—and those top three got to become pilots of Black Hawk helicopters.

Returning to her Army Reserves unit in Illinois in 1994, Duckworth became a platoon leader and was soon named first lieutenant. She was deployed to Egypt for a NATO training mission in 1995, but upon learning her unit was being deactivated, Duckworth switched to the National Guard. Then, from 1996 to 2003, Duckworth worked toward her PhD while holding down various civilian jobs, serving her leadership role in the National Guard, and keeping her flying skills sharp. Duckworth said, “In order to maintain proficiency I must fly 96 hours each year. I worked during the day and flew one or two nights each week.”

Making captain in 1998, Duckworth went on to spend three years as commander of Bravo Company, 106th Aviation of the Illinois Army National Guard, but she was about to transfer to another unit in October 2003 when she learned that the 106th, known as the Mad Dogs, was being called up for duty. Duckworth refused to be left behind, pleading with her battalion commander to be included with those deployed. When the Illinois National Guard decided they needed more soldiers to deploy than initially planned, Duckworth got her wish. She shipped out for Iraq in December 2003.

That meant Duckworth left her academic career behind. Having finished her classes, Duckworth was in the midst of writing the proposal for her dissertation when she deployed to Iraq. She would not finish her political science doctorate.

9. SHE EXPERIENCED A TRAUMATIC ORDEAL …

Duckworth was one of only a handful of women to fly Black Hawk helicopters during the War in Iraq. “I love controlling this giant, fierce machine,” Duckworth has said. “I strap that bird on my back and I'm in charge of it and we just go, and it's just power.”

Duckworth had been serving in Iraq and Kuwait for nearly a year when the Black Hawk she was copiloting was attacked by Iraqi insurgents on November 12, 2004. Chief Warrant Officer Dan Milberg was flying the helicopter with Duckworth in the seat beside him when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded beneath the cockpit. Duckworth struggled for control of the aircraft, but her feet couldn’t work the pedals. She didn’t realize that both her feet and the pedals were gone. Milberg managed to land the helicopter safely, at which point Duckworth lost consciousness. “I assumed at that point that she had passed,” Milberg told Mother Jones. “All I saw was her torso, and one leg on the floor. It looked like she was gone from the waist down.”

Milberg and others carried Duckworth away from the burning chopper and soon put her into a medical evacuation helicopter, which flew her to Baghdad, where surgeons amputated both her legs—the right leg a few inches below the hip bone and the left just below the knee. They set the bones in her shattered right arm and sealed her cuts. Under heavy sedation, she was then airlifted to the Landstuhl military hospital in Germany, and quickly transferred to Walter Reed in Maryland, where her husband met her, keeping vigil by her bedside until she awoke days later. Ultimately, Duckworth underwent over 20 surgeries and retained only partial mobility in her right arm. She remained at Walter Reed for a year, undergoing surgical procedures and fighting through physical therapy.

10. … BUT MAINTAINED HER SENSE OF HUMOR.

When Duckworth first woke up from sedation and saw her husband at her bedside, she didn’t cry. She recalled, “I said three things when I woke up in Walter Reed. ‘I love you.’ ‘Put me to work,’ and ‘You stink! Go shower!’” Bowlsbey was relieved; her body was broken, but Duckworth’s personality and spirit were very much intact.

Duckworth has adopted a joking approach to her injuries, wearing funny t-shirts that say things like, “Lucky for me he's an ass man.” Her husband isn’t as fond of the shirt as Duckworth is. She told GQ, “[H]e's thrown it away at least once, and I've pulled it back out of the garbage can and worn it.” Another t-shirt reads, “Dude, where’s my leg?”

“I can better honor the struggle that my crew went through to save my life by having a sense of humor about it,” Duckworth has said.

Duckworth also makes use of her prosthetic legs for tasks other than getting around. During a June 2016 House of Representatives sit-in designed to force a vote on gun control legislation, Duckworth worried security would begin confiscating members’ cell phones, so she hid hers inside her prosthetic leg. She also joked to GQ that she sometimes hides Sour Patch Kids candy in there, and she enjoys using her prosthetics to make a fashion statement—she ordered special ones that can accommodate a 2-inch heel.

11. SHE CELEBRATES THE DAY SHE ALMOST DIED.

Duckworth calls it Alive Day. Every year on November 12, she tries to get together with the crewmates who saved her life. On the first anniversary of the attack on their helicopter, Dan Milberg, Duckworth’s fellow pilot on that mission and one of the men who carried her to safety, called her in the hospital at Walter Reed, saying, “It’s almost 4:30 in Iraq. In five minutes you’re going to be shot down.” They shared a moment of gratitude. The next year, Duckworth had just lost her first congressional campaign, and Alive Day helped pull her out of her disappointment over that loss. The crew continued to meet every year, excepting 2008, when all except Duckworth were deployed. In 2009, Duckworth had begun a job with the federal VA, and her crewmates flew to Washington, D.C., where she gave them a tour of the Capitol and the White House. During her first Alive Day in Congress, in 2013, Duckworth gave a speech on the House floor, thanking by name the men who saved her life. “You can choose to spend the day of your injury in a dark room feeling sorry for yourself or you can choose to get together with the buddies who saved your life, and I choose the latter,” Duckworth told the Chicago Tribune in 2006.

12. SHE BECAME INTERESTED IN POLITICS WHILE RECUPERATING.

Duckworth calls Walter Reed the “amputee petting zoo,” and has noted it was a popular place for politicians to have a feel-good photo op. While she was rehabilitating at Walter Reed, Duckworth met a number of politicians who came to visit the patients, and she also struck up a friendship with former senator and Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, who was in the hospital as a patient. But it was only after her Illinois senator, the Democrat Dick Durbin, invited her and a number of other wounded veterans from Illinois to attend the 2005 State of the Union that she began to consider a political career of her own.

Younger service members who were being treated at Walter Reed had started coming to Duckworth for advice and help navigating pay issues and medical care, and Duckworth used her new connection to Senator Durbin to advocate for these soldiers and their families. Her passion and persistence made such an impression that Durbin suggested she run for office. After talking it over with Bowlsbey, Duckworth decided to launch a campaign for Congress. In the 2006 race for Illinois’s 6th district, Duckworth won the Democratic primary but lost to Republican Peter Roskam in the general election by less than 5000 votes.

13. SHE’S WORKED TO IMPROVE SERVICES FOR VETERANS.

Duckworth being sworn in as Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public domain

After losing her first Congressional race, Duckworth became the Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, serving from 2006 through the beginning of 2009. While running the Illinois state VA, she created a mental health hotline for suicidal veterans and instituted the nation’s first mandatory screening for brain injuries for all members of the state National Guard returning from service overseas.

Soon after his inauguration, President Obama appointed Duckworth the Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, where she worked primarily on public relations and created an online communications office in hopes of using the internet to better reach young veterans. In 2012, Duckworth was elected to Congress, defeating incumbent Joe Walsh to take the seat in Illinois’s 8th District. During her time in the House, she backed legislation to support veterans, working to pass the Clay Hunt Act, a bill aimed at reducing suicide among returning service members. The bill became law in 2015.

14. OPPONENTS HAVE ATTACKED HER MILITARY SERVICE …

During the 2012 Congressional race, Joe Walsh, the Republican incumbent, lashed out at Duckworth, suggesting she wasn’t a “true hero” because she talks too much about her military service. Asserting that John McCain’s political advisors had to pressure him to talk about his own military service, Walsh then attacked Duckworth, saying, “I’m running against a woman who, my God, that’s all she talks about. Our true heroes, it’s the last thing in the world they talk about.” Some years earlier, Duckworth had told The Washington Post, “I can't avoid the interest in the fact that I'm an injured female soldier. Understand that I'm going to use this as a platform.”

Duckworth had also faced anger in some quarters when she criticized the Iraq war during her 2006 campaign. “I think [invading Iraq] was a bad decision,” she told The Washington Post. “I think we used bad intelligence. I think our priority should have been Afghanistan and capturing Osama bin Laden. Our troops do an incredible job every single day, but our policymakers have not lived up to the sacrifices that our troops make every day.” However, Duckworth reiterated her pride at serving her country in uniform, stating that, despite believing the decision to invade Iraq was an error, “I was proud to go. It was my duty as a soldier to go. And I would go tomorrow.”

15. … AND THAT OF HER ANCESTORS.

During her 2016 senate campaign, the military service in question was not Duckworth’s own but that of her ancestors. During a debate with her opponent, Republican incumbent Mark Kirk, Duckworth proudly asserted, “My family has served this nation in uniform going back to the Revolution.” Kirk retorted, “I’d forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.” Democrats quickly condemned the remark, with a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee calling it “offensive, wrong, and racist.” Kirk later apologized on Twitter.

While Duckworth’s mother is a Thai native, her father’s family has been in the United States since before it became a country—and at least one such ancestor was a Revolutionary War soldier. Following the line of her paternal grandmother, Duckworth’s fifth great-grandfather, Elijah Anderson, served in the Virginia militia under Captain John Bell during the Revolution. Following her paternal grandfather’s line, Duckworth seems to be related to Aaron Duckworth, who may have served as a private during the Revolutionary War.

Duckworth’s own investment in the US military comes from her father, Franklin, who left his small Virginia town at 15 and lied about his age to enlist in the Marines. He served in World War II, earning a Purple Heart when he was wounded at Okinawa. Franklin went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam, passing his military values onto his children once he’d reentered civilian life: Tammy’s younger brother also has a military record, having spent eight years in the Coast Guard.

16. SHE DOES NOT GIVE UP.

When she was deployed to Iraq in 2004, Duckworth’s doctoral studies fell by the wayside. Recovering from her injuries and helping other veterans became her focus when she returned stateside, but Duckworth told Chicago Magazine in 2012 that “One of the greatest disappointments in my life is that I ran out of time; I just didn’t finish [my political science PhD].” While her new career in government work kept her from returning to Indiana to study, it also shifted her interests. Duckworth started an online PhD program in Human Services while she was working as the Assistant Secretary for the federal VA. She continued to chip away at her doctoral work after being elected to the House of Representatives, and after six years of effort, Duckworth graduated with her PhD in 2015. Her dissertation looked at the use of digitized medical records among doctors in Illinois.

Perhaps that kind of determination shouldn’t be surprising from a woman who wouldn’t let the amputation of both her legs keep her from serving in the military—or even from flying. While injured veterans are usually discharged, Duckworth petitioned to remain on active duty—switching to inactive duty when she started doing political work. As soon as June 2006, she was working intermittently as an aviation safety instructor for the Illinois National Guard while also conducting her first congressional campaign. She finally retired from the military in 2014.

She even got her wings back: In 2010, Duckworth secured her license to fly a fixed-wing airplane. By 2014, she was flying helicopters again. Small ones, not military copters, but the return still felt triumphant. She told the Daily Herald, “When I got back in a helicopter, it felt like home.”

The Lavender Scare: When the U.S. Government Persecuted Employees for Being Gay

President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many people have heard of the Red Scare, an episode of persecution of suspected communists in the 1940s and 1950s, but they’re less familiar with a scare of a different hue. Over the same period, and into the 1990s, officials investigated and fired government employees for being gay or lesbian—a phenomenon that has become known as the “Lavender Scare.”

Thousands of people were pushed out of government jobs, whether they worked at the State Department or other agencies, as federal contractors, or in the military, because of their perceived sexuality—and, in some cases, because of guilt by association. Most remain anonymous, part of a chapter in LGBTQ history that is frequently ignored.

"The Pervert File"

The Lavender Scare was the product of a perfect storm of circumstances. During the Great Depression and World War II, many gays and lesbians left their rural communities in search of opportunities elsewhere, including in Washington, D.C. Government jobs provided excellent pay and benefits, and in a city, people could build community. But trouble lay ahead.

The first rumblings began in 1947, when the U.S. Park Police instituted a “Sex Perversion Elimination Program” explicitly targeting gay men in Washington, D.C. public parks for harassment. Patrols focused on Lafayette and Franklin Parks, where any men deemed suspicious could be picked up regardless of their intentions. Men were arrested and intimidated, pushed to pay fines to resolve their arrests and go home—but not before their information, including fingerprints and photographs, was collected for inclusion in a “pervert file.” By February 1950, 700 men had been apprehended, 200 of whom were arrested. According to historian David K. Johnson in his book The Lavender Scare, the typical detainee was a 25-year-old government clerk.

The parks program appeared against the backdrop of “sexual psychopath” laws. Passed across the country starting in the 1930s, these laws criminalized LGBTQ people and promoted forcible treatment [PDF] for their sexual expression, which was viewed as a mental disorder. Nebraska Republican Arthur Miller, who authored D.C.’s now-repealed “sexual psychopath” law in 1948, became one of the most vitriolic individuals in attacking gay federal employees: “There are places in Washington where they gather for the purpose of sex orgies, where they worship at the cesspool and flesh pots of iniquity,” Miller said in a blisteringly homophobic floor speech in early 1950.

Miller wasn't the only one speaking out about the perceived menace. In his now-infamous speeches on the Senate floor in February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy explicitly linked communism and homosexuality, arguing that LGBTQ people were particularly susceptible to communist recruitment because of their "peculiar mental twists."

McCarthy's speeches—and a revelation by deputy undersecretary of state John Peurifoy that the State Department had recently fired 91 employees for being gay—led to a public outcry. Within a month of McCarthy taking to the Senate floor, a Congressional investigation led by senators Kenneth Wherry and J. Lister Hill laid the groundwork for hearings on the issue. Those ultimately resulted in a bipartisan December 1950 report: “Employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in government,” led by Democratic senator Clyde R. Hoey.

The report, which drew upon extensive interviews with federal agencies and the military, concluded that gay people should not be employed by the government because they were "generally unsuitable" and because they constituted a security risk. The unsuitability was said to stem from the fact that "overt acts of sex perversion" were a crime under federal and local laws, as well as the assertion that "persons who engage in such activity are looked upon as outcasts by society generally." Furthermore, the report said, gay people "lack the emotional stability of normal persons" and "indulgence in acts of sex perversion weakens the moral fiber of an individual to a degree that he is not suitable for a position of responsibility." This lack of moral fiber was said to make gay people, who might be blackmailed for their activities, particularly "susceptible to the blandishments of the foreign espionage agent."

In a callback to the park stings of the 1940s, the report successfully recommended changes to D.C. criminal procedure that forced men suspected of “perversion” into court when they were caught by law enforcement, effectively outing them. The report also pushed government entities to develop clear policies and procedures for terminating gay and lesbian employees—a recommendation that would have tremendous consequences.

"As Dangerous as the Communists"

Kenneth Wherry
Kenneth Wherry
Harris & Ewing, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The government seized on the idea that being gay was a security risk. As Senator Wherry put it, "Only the most naive could believe that the Communists' fifth column in the United States would neglect to propagate and use homosexuals to gain their treacherous ends." In a 1950 newsletter, Republican National Chair Guy George Gabrielson cited “sexual perverts” as a government peril that was "perhaps as dangerous as the actual communists" [PDF].

Inspired in part by the Hoey Report, President Dwight Eisenhower signed executive order 10450 in 1953, listing “sexual perversion” as grounds for identifying someone as a security risk. The document made it possible to aggressively pursue people like Airman Second Class Helen Grace James. James has described being followed and watched during her days in the Air Force, even during activities as innocent as eating a sandwich with a friend or going to the bathroom. The feeling of constant scrutiny affected her mental health and her sleep. "We were scared all the time," she told the Criminal podcast.

Once James was arrested in 1955, the Army threatened to go to her parents and friends with news of her sexuality, saying James was "a threat to the nation and a bad person," she explained to Criminal. "I finally said, just write down whatever you want to write down and I'll sign it."

After being discharged, James fled the East Coast. "[I] had no money, no support at all. I couldn't tell my family, I couldn't tell my friends," she said. "I had hoped to make a career of the Air Force, I loved it." Being kicked out of the Air Force, she felt, was a stain on her military family. She fought for years to change her undesirable discharge to an honorable one; she was finally successful in 2018.

James suffered in silence for years, but Frank Kameny took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1957, he was fired from his job as an astronomer with the Army Map Service for being gay. In his Supreme Court petition three years later, he called the government's policies on homosexuality “nothing more than a reflection of ancient primitive, archaic, obsolete taboos … an anachronistic relic of the Stone Age carried over into the Space Age—and a harmful relic!” His case may have been the first explicitly involving LGBTQ rights to make its way before the court, which denied his appeal. Kameny went on to become a prominent member of the gay rights movement, and was a founder of the Mattachine Society, an activist organization that collects and preserves important archival material related to LGBTQ history.

All in all, an estimated 10,000 people lost their jobs in the Lavender Scare. President Clinton effectively overturned parts of Executive Order 10450 in 1995, but the government didn't apologize for the discrimination until the administration of Barack Obama.

Fellow Travelers

Frank Kameny attending Pride on June 12, 2010
LGBTQ activist and Lavender Scare target Frank Kameny attending a Pride event in 2010

Although not a well-known period in history, The Lavender Scare has had a cultural afterlife. It was the subject of a 2017 documentary, and a key element of a 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers, which followed a youthful civil servant, a forbidden affair, and the terror of living a double life in 1950s Washington. The book was adapted into an opera first staged in 2016, complete with a set inspired by the overbearing style of 1950s brutalist architecture.

“The piece wants to memorialize those people whose lives were lost, or jobs were lost,” Peter Rothstein, who directed the Minnesota Opera production, tells Mental Floss. Many members of the LGBTQ community aren’t aware of the Lavender Scare, or don’t know about its full extent, something Rothstein discovered when he started to research in preparation for the production. “I thought I was kind of up on my queer history. I was like 'whoa!' The scope of it.”

While stereotypes about gay men and musical theater abound, Rothstein notes that musicals play an important role in America’s cultural history and climate. Many recent works, including Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamiltonhave explored historical and cultural identity—and with Fellow Travelers, Rothstein says, the medium was particularly apt. “There’s a huge subtext of men not able to articulate for themselves, because they haven’t really been given language to describe their emotional, sexual specificity," he explained.

This neglected piece of queer history reflects a time when shame kept many people silent. Thankfully, historians such as Johnson are collecting stories before survivors of this generation fade away. As they uncover more tales of careers—and lives—ruined, perhaps the Lavender Scare will begin to take on more of a role in mainstream history books.

19 Facts About the 19th Amendment

getty images
getty images

On August 18, 1920, American women finally secured the right to vote. Calling the victory hard-won would be an understatement: Denounced by many, the 19th amendment had an ugly, uphill road to ratification. 

1. In 1797, New Jersey temporarily granted voting rights to unwed women.

New Jersey's original state constitution, adopted in 1776, declared that “all inhabitants” who were “worth 50 pounds” could vote. Because some found this wording rather vague, clearer legislation was drafted, and in 1797, the State Assembly explicitly granted unwed female New Jerseyans suffrage.

For the next 10 years, single women were permitted to cast ballots. Married women weren’t given this privilege because their husbands legally controlled every piece of property they owned, so they failed the “50 pounds” requirement. In 1807, the Assembly passed a new law that forbade anyone but “free, white male citizens” who were at least 21 and paid taxes from voting. 

2. The Wyoming Territory led a nationwide charge for suffrage. 

Today, it’s called “The Equality State,” and in 1869, it really earned that nickname. During this pivotal year, a bill sponsored by Councilman William Bright was approved by the Territorial Legislature. “[Every] woman, of the age of 21 years," the document read, "residing in this Territory, may at every election to be holden under the law thereof, cast her vote.”

Though suffragists cheered this news, some feared that the celebration would be short-lived. Just two years after women were given the right to vote, Wyoming was one vote short of repealing the act. But eventually, women’s right to vote became so entrenched in Wyoming that when it applied for statehood, Congress threatened to deny it unless Bright’s bill was revoked—but the local legislature wouldn't back down: “We will remain out of the union [for] 100 years rather than come in without the women.” Congress caved, and Wyoming, with all its female voters, became 44th state in 1890.

3. The 19th Amendment was first proposed (and defeated) in 1878.  

“The right of citizens to vote shall not be abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.” So read an amendment that California Senator Arlen A. Sargent put forth for discussion on January 10, 1878, at the urging of his friends Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Hearings were held by the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections, but they weren’t encouraging. While advocates voiced their support, several committee members busied themselves by reading newspapers or staring off into space. The bill was rejected, though it would be re-introduced every year for the next 41 years.

4. Before 1920, voting rights differed across state lines.

In January 1919, suffrage laws varied considerably: 15 states allowed women to vote in all elections, while 21 barred them from certain contests (for instance, women in Texas could cast ballots only during primaries). The remaining 12 prohibited women voting altogether. 

5. Teddy Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" party campaigned on women's enfranchisement. 

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “I believe in women’s suffrage, but … I do not regard it as a very important matter.” But he made women's suffrage a central issue while seeking a third term. When William Howard Taft’s 1912 re-nomination dashed Roosevelt’s hopes of running again as a Republican, he launched the Progressive Party, which incorporated suffrage into its official platform

One day into the campaign, T.R. made history. At the party’s convention, social reformer Jane Addams became the first woman to ever second the nomination of a major presidential candidate. “It was a spectacular proceeding,” opined Woodrow Wilson backer Charles W. Elliot, “but in exceedingly bad taste, because a woman has no place at a political convention.”

6. William Howard Taft had mixed feelings about suffrage for women. 

As Big Bill told The Saturday Evening Post in 1915, he favored a gradual approach to granting female voting rights. Taft believed that “the immediate enfranchisement of women would increase … the hysterical element of the electorate.” However, if such a reform could be “delayed until a great majority” desired it, the change would “be a correct and useful extension of the democratic principle. The benefit will come slowly and imperceptibly.”

7. Not all suffrage opponents were men. 

Alice Hay Wadsworth was among the most prominent women to denounce what became the 19th Amendment. Wadsworth was the former president of the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage and the wife of Senator James Wolcott Wadsworth, Jr., Republican of New York. An infamous pamphlet published by the association claimed that “90 percent of women either do not want it or do not care,” and that new voting rights would mean “competition with men instead of cooperation.” 

8. Suffrage advocates threw a White House picket protest. 

Activist Alice Paul had little trouble getting under President Woodrow Wilson’s skin. She broke new, nonviolent ground by establishing a group called the Silent Sentinels, which began protesting outside the White House on January 10, 1917. Over the next 2.5 years, they spent six days a week holding up pro-enfranchisement signs with such captions as “How long must women wait for liberty?” and “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?” 

9. The suffragists' hunger strikes forced Wilson to act. 

Eventually, policemen began arresting Silent Sentinels—including Paul herself—for “obstructing traffic.” While incarcerated, she organized a hunger strike, which drove guards to begin force-feeding captive activists. And it got worse: Guards denied the protestors water, one of the protestors was manacled to the bars and nearly placed in a straitjacket and gagged for talking to her fellow inmates, and three emerged from the ordeal so weak that doctors feared for their lives. Wilson’s stance on enfranchisement shifted from tepid support to total advocacy. 

10. Wilson tried to pass national suffrage in 1918, but fell short. 

With World War I still raging, Wilson officially endorsed what later became the 19th amendment. One day after he released a statement to this effect, the House passed the measure. Riding high on that victory, Wilson addressed the Senate in person, saying, “We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Despite these passionate words, the amendment didn’t break through, falling short just two votes. A few months later, Congress tried passing it again—and missed the mark by one vote in the Senate. 

11. One suffragette died for the cause.

On June 4, 1919, the Senate finally passed the amendment. Now, its life depended upon the states. Approvals from three-fourths of the states were needed for ratification.   

Aloysius Larch-Miller, the Oklahoma State Suffrage Ratification Committee’s secretary, was stricken with influenza during the winter of 1920 and told to remain in bed. But she went out to debate a prominent anti-suffragist at a local convention. Two days later, she passed away, and her death became a rallying cry for suffragists. Oklahoma eventually ratified the 19th Amendment.

12. One state representative guaranteed the 19th Amendment's success to please his mother. 

When Tennessee approved the bill on August 18, 1920, it became the 36th state to ratify, providing the necessary three-fourths majority. A 24-year-old state representative named Harry Burn, who previously opposed suffrage, had received a letter from his widowed mother, Febb Burn, on the day of the vote. She urged him to support the amendment. He voted yes, and led Tennessee to ratify by a margin of 49 to 47. Since the state senate had already passed it, the measure won out. “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow,” Harry Burn noted, “and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.” 

13. Eight days after the 19th Amendment was ratified, 10 million women joined the electorate. 

On August 26, the 19th amendment officially took effect. As legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar points out, the sheer volume of brand new voters created by this legal action made it “the single biggest democratizing event in American history.” 

14. Multiple citizens have been cited as the first to vote under the new amendment. 

South St. Paul, Minnesota scheduled a special bond election at 5:30 a.m. on August 27 in which 87 women voted (but women could vote in these elections anyway; their votes just didn’t count—they were recorded for public interest). Nevertheless, it’s often reported that Mrs. Marie Ruoff Byrum of Hannibal, Missouri cast the first female ballot in post-amendment history in a local alderman race four days later. 

15. Rumors circulated that a woman might appear on the Democratic ticket in 1920. 

Prominent Republican May Jester Allen allegedly heard that the Dems were weighing a 35-year-old DNC committeewoman named Anna Dickie Olesen for their vice-presidential nomination. Instead, the nomination went to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

16. FDR became the first president whose mother was eligible to vote. 

Warren G. Harding’s mother, Calvin Coolidge’s mother, and Herbert Hoover’s mother had already died by the time their sons ran for president. Sara Roosevelt, on the other hand, lived to see her son win his third term in 1940.  

17. In 1922, some said the amendment was unconstitutional.

Because Maryland’s constitution reserved voting for men, Judge Oscar Leser and other anti-suffragists charged that the federal government had unlawfully infringed upon their state’s rights. In Leser v. Garnett, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected this and similar arguments against the 19th amendment, thus ensuring its long-term survival. Apparently Chief Justice William Howard Taft decided that the “great majority” were finally for it.

18. Mississippi didn't ratify the 19th Amendment until March 22, 1984. 

Other holdouts include Louisiana and North Carolina, which waited until June 11, 1970 and May 6, 1971, respectively. Still, Mississippi was the very last state to go through with ratification.

19. A statue celebrating Tennessee's role in the 19th Amendment's passage was unveiled in 2016. 

Sculpted by Nashville native Alan LeQuire, the monument depicts five suffragists: Abby Crawford Milton of Chattanooga, Sue Shelton White of Jackson, Frankie Pierce and Anne Dudley of Nashville, and League of Women Voters founder Carrie Chapman Catt. It stands on the Tennessee Performing Arts Center Bridge, near the state capital’s War Memorial building.

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