1916 Referendum

Feb 25, 2020  | 3 min 43 sec  | Ep 2020

In June 1916, four years before the 19th Amendment was ratified, Iowa men voted down a constitutional amendment that would allow women in the state the right to vote.


By the early 20th century, Iowa women had been fighting for the right to vote for over 50 years. While support among residents was slowly growing, they had been stuck in what Susan B. Anthony called a “cat and mouse game” in the Iowa legislature for decades.

According to Iowa law, an amendment must pass through two consecutive legislatures before being submitted to the people for a vote.

For years, a woman suffrage amendment would pass in one house... only to be defeated in the other.

But in 1913, both houses of the 35th Iowa General Assembly passed the amendment. It was passed again by the 36th General Assembly in 1915, giving suffragists the opportunity they’d been waiting for.

If suffragists could convince a majority of the male voters to support the amendment, Iowa would become the 12th full-suffrage state in the union, meaning women could vote in every election, including presidential races.

Iowa suffrage leaders knew they needed to launch a massive campaign in order to try and persuade the men in their lives to give them the right to vote.

Iowa Equal Suffrage Association president Flora Dunlap was in charge of leading the effort.

She wanted to ensure that every voter in the state would be reached... and organized a massive grassroots campaign, which included a statewide automobile tour and distribution of over 5 million pieces of literature.

She sought help from national suffrage leaders Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Howard Shaw, who both toured the state giving speeches. suffrage clubs were armed with campaign kits, filled with flyers, booklets and talking points.

All signs pointed to victory.

Women’s suffrage was supported by many influential men in the state, and the Secretary of State predicted a 20,000-vote majority for suffrage.

But simultaneously, anti-suffragists were working just as hard to resist the idea of women having the vote.

They distributed propaganda of their own, and ten days before the election, in a last-ditch effort, they paid for a full page ad to appear in farm journals across the state. They insisted that woman suffrage would cause taxes to rise.

Men went to the polls on June 5, 1916 and by a margin of 10,341 votes, rejected the amendment.

Suffrage supporters were shocked.

Shortly after the results were released, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union launched an investigation into the election and found there to be “several strange conditions.” The WCTU discovered many voters were unaccounted for. In some counties, the number of votes that were cast exceeded the number of names registered to vote.

They drew the conclusion that women were defeated out of their right to the ballot by fraud.

While the campaign failed, it did prove to have ramifications outside the state.

Carrie Chapman Catt returned to New York and devised her “winning plan” that would help usher in the 19th amendment less than four years later.