The (Literal) Race to Women's Suffrage


Wisconsin and Illinois have always had as fierce a rivalry as any two states in the nation. The Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears have been playing games against each other longer than any other, while Milwaukee is constantly trying to shed its "Suburb of Chicago" reputation.

A century ago, the two states even competed against each other to become the first in the nation to ratify the 19th Amendment. This is the forgotten history of the (literal) race to women's suffrage.

David James was as proud as a father could be. The 76 year-old former State Senator had come to the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison with his daughter Ada to see the culmination of her life's work. The U.S. Senate had just given final congressional approval to a proposed Constitutional amendment that would give women the right to vote. Now the states had to ratify it, and Wisconsin would be the first.

Ada James was one of the state's most prominent suffragists, and she was going to be there when the Wisconsin Legislature voted and Governor Emmanuel Phillip signed the state's ratification. And her father David, himself a big supporter of women's suffrage, would be there with her.

But there was a snag.

"Two Democrats played politics for over an hour," Ada wrote in her journal.

Then a message came over the telegraph: Illinois had just ratified the amendment an hour earlier. Wisconsin wouldn't be the first state after all. Ada was crushed, but not defeated. She knew that it was possible that Illinois or Michigan--the only other two states' whose legislatures were in session that day--might try to beat Wisconsin and become the first states to ratify, so she and fellow suffragist Jessie Jack Hooper had a plan.

They rallied legislators to get the two Democrats holding things up to give in, and as soon as both houses voted for ratification, an aide sprinted to the governor's office for his signature. Technically, Illinois was first, but it wasn't yet official. Wisconsin simply had to get its documentation to Wa shington, D.C. before Illinois did.

"Mrs. Hooper did not give up, as it is the state that gets the papers on file first at Washington that counts," Ada wrote, adding that Governor Phillip appointed a special messenger to get the paperwork across the country as quickly as possible: Her father.

"After the bill has passed and we were sharing congratulations, a committee came up to me and said I had been chosen as official messenger to go to Washington with the papers," David later told The Milwaukee Sentinel. "'Why don’t you get a younger man?' I asked, thinking they were joking. But they insisted, and my daughter urged me to take the commission, so finally I said I would and immediately set about preparations."

David realized he didn't have much money on him, but before he knew it, Ada had shoved her purse into his hands and was pushing him out the doors of the Capitol. He dashed to the nearest taxi he could find and rode to the train station, hoping that he had gotten on the line to Washington before Illinois' representative did. After what felt like days, he arrived in D.C.

"We packed into a taxi and arrived at no time at the offices of the Secretary of State, where my papers were safely filed," David said. "And I received a signed statement that Wisconsin was the first."

He had done it. He had carried his daughter's life's work across the finish line and smiled from ear to ear as he breathed a sigh of both relief and exhaustion.

Just then, Illinois' messenger burst through the door.

"I’ve brought papers to show Illinois was first to ratify," he said, but as David recalled, he was "interrupted by peals of laughter." He was 90 minutes late.

Thanks to Ada James' quick thinking and her father's hustle, their state had won, and even though Illinois was technically first, Wisconsin is the state that has the designation of being the first to ratify the 19th Amendment and give women the right to vote.

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